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A Cambodian Christmas

ImageI write to you live from my couch on a sunny, Monday afternoon.  Shouldn’t you be at work, you ask?  Why yes, yes I should; however, my recent cold that lasted three days has now turned into viral conjunctivitis (the technical, fancy word for pink eye).  I went to the ophthalmologist this morning where he gave me a shot in the butt (is it normal for your eye doctor to give you a shot in the butt?  Seemed odd to me…), a week of antibiotics and two different types of eye drops.  He told me that my eye will probably get worse over the next few days and will most likely spread to the other eye and will all eventually clear up in a week or two.  I’m going to go ahead and disregard that and say that this will only last a few days and will not, in fact, get worse or spread to the other eye.  He also advised me to take a week or two off of work, which was met with a giant “HA!” on my end.  Ain’t nobody got time for that!  Another doctor told me that if I don’t touch my face and just wash my hands a lot I can go back to work today.  Well, there’s no fun in that, so I decided to take the day off, start some meds and do some hardcore relaxing (as well as some cleaning.  Don’t need to spread this to Renee). 

Island life has been pretty wonderful.  Renee and I have met some awesome people, have made some wonderful friends and have gotten to see more of the country.  Although every job has its ups and downs, I can honestly say that I like working at I-Sponge kindergarten, and I love the children. 

But enough of the everyday happenings, let’s get to the juicy part.  While many of you were at home, snuggled and bundled up with your hot cocoa spending precious family time together over the holidays, I went to Cambodia.  Why Cambodia, you ask?  Well, for starters, I’ve never been there.  Also, it’s cheap and pretty close.  Renee and I left Korea on December 22, had a seven hour layover in Shanghai, China (hate layovers in China, but the Shanghai airport is MUCH better than Beijing), and then landed in the balmy, 80°F city of Phnom Penh. 

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Me, Katie, Maggie, Renee and Trenton saying farewell at the airport.

After getting a shiny new visa in my passport and making it through customs (while the officer serenaded me with “Gangnam Style” after seeing my Korean work visa, of course), we met our beautiful friend, Maggie, who we would spend our week with.  Fun fact about the Phnom Penh airport: half of it is outside.  The baggage claim and help desk area have a roof overhead, but no walls and a pond, so that really gives off a relaxed vibe about the country straight away.  Soon we were in a taxi zipping off to our hotel, which we were told by the driver, was the “party area” of the city.  Once we arrived we had no idea why the man had said that it was a hopping place – the area was deserted except for a few men hanging out under a tarp next to a football field sized hole in the ground.  Being that it was after midnight, we took a shower and promptly fell asleep.  The next night we discovered why this was considered a party place – there were about five weddings taking place in that one block area at the same time, and the weddings didn’t really wrap up until about 4 or 5 a.m. 

We had made zero plans for this trip except to book all of our hotels in advance, so our first day we set out to find the main area of the city, as well as a highly recommended pizza joint called “Happy Pizza.”  I know what you’re thinking: why would you travel to Cambodia to eat pizza?  The question you should really be asking is: why do they call it HAPPY pizza?  Well, friends, there is a very special herb on the pizza that when you consume it makes you feel, you guessed it, happy.  And they don’t just have happy pizza.  Oh, no, they also have happy garlic bread.  And happy shakes.  And happy sandwiches.  Get the point?  After eating a delicious pizza and an amazing banana shake, I bought some $4 purple sunglasses from the guy who came up to our table when we were finishing up.  I could have haggled, but they were FOUR DOLLAR SUNGLASSES, and they were pretty, and I was feeling good.

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Me and Maggie enjoying our happy shakes.

With my new shades on, we headed to the market where I figured we could do some nice browsing and leisurely shopping.  Stopping to look at some bracelets on display, a young woman was immediately by my side.  “You like this one, lady?  This one very nice, too.  I give you good price.  What one you want, lady?”  What I want is for you to stand over there until I make up my mind and then I can pay you, but then it all came snapping back to me: there is no such thing as leisurely shopping in a Southeast Asian market.  You must know exactly what you want, exactly how much you will pay, haggle the price down and make your purchase or walk away within about thirty seconds.  We walked away from the covered entrance into a huge open building with tables full of jewelry, t-shirts, silk pants, paintings, trinkets, bobbles, you name it.  The three of us walked through, never touching or pausing too long at a stand, until I found a stand with no one around.  I stopped to touch the beautifully printed pants hanging on the wall, when I noticed the woman lying on some blankets on the ground, shirt pulled up and breastfeeding her baby.  She saw me just as I saw her, and before I could walk away she had ripped the baby from her breast, tugged down her shirt and had the pants in my hand.  “You like this one, lady?  I have big size for you!”

<Sidenote: most Westerners will hear the phrase “big size” when shopping.  Do not take this personally.  Instead of getting upset, I translate “big size” as meaning, “we women here in Asia do not have the same curves or breast size as you Western women, so here are some items that will fit your beautiful figure.”  Keep this in mind, and the seemingly cruel wording will not ruin your trip and/or crush your ego.

I found a pair of silky Ali Baba pants patterned with white and blue elephants and swirls, and I bought them for $6.  I wasn’t even entirely sure what these pants looked like or if I even wanted them, but it was the least I could do after giving her kid whiplash and postponing his lunch.

We all agreed that the fifteen minutes we had spent in there was enough, so we went back outside; however, the hotel that was once across the street was no longer there.  We must have gone out the wrong way, and as we entered back into the building we realized that there were eight different exits, all identical to one another.  This was not a problem I had anticipated having.  After a good five or ten (or twenty?  Who knows) minutes of walking around trying to leave, we eventually found our way out.  We wanted to find a little café or restaurant to sit and relax at while we waited for our driver, but the closest thing that we found was a stone bench on the side of a building.  We sat on that bench for over an hour watching people walk by and scooters zip around with usually no less than three people on one (the most I saw was five – three adults, a baby and a toddler), all the while making little comments like, “oh, this is a really different place.  I think I have a little culture shock.  Maybe I shouldn’t have eaten all of that pizza.”  We went back to the hotel for a bit to decompress and headed out again for some dinner a while later.  We sat outside mostly in silence, taking it all in, getting used to our surroundings and trying to figure out the vibe of this new place.  A lot of children came up to our table trying to sell us things, and although it’s heartbreaking to see, we knew that we shouldn’t buy from children because it encourages the cycle of poverty.  Here’s a link explaining more of why you shouldn’t give money to or buy things from street children. 

http://www.travelfish.org/blogs/cambodia/2011/06/03/why-giving-money-to-street-kids-is-a-really-terrible-idea/

The next day, Christmas Eve, we woke up bright and early to get on a boat that would take us to Siem Reap via the Tonle Sap River.  It looked like a long, covered speed boat with extremely small seats and zero leg room.  Needless to say, I spent most of the time outside on the front of the boat watching and waving to the local people fishing and going about their business.

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Sites on the river to Siem Reap.

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Eventually we arrived at the Golden Mango Inn, the most beautiful place I have ever stayed.  This hotel is covered in trees, plants and twinkle lights, and it has a covered eating area outside as well as a little hut covered in a thatch roof.  Our room had three beds, was clean, and most importantly, we had a bathtub (basically nonexistent in Korea).  Right outside our door was a balcony where we frequently sat, read books and magazines, talked and drank some coffee or a cocktail.  Speaking of cocktails, Cambodia makes amazing drinks (especially the pina coladas) with all fresh ingredients for about $2. 

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Dining area at the Golden Mango Inn.
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Lounging and eating area outside of the Golden Mango Inn.

The next day was Christmas, and although I missed my friends and family very much, I took advantage of my situation and spent the day by the pool, got a massage in my room, read, drank and talked with some family back home via Skype.  I had a pretty nice little Christmas, I’d say.

We spent a lot of time at our hotel either on the balcony, by the pool or in the little hut downstairs.  My goals for this vacation were as follows: relax, explore the cities, relax, see Angkor Archeological Park, relax, hit up some markets, relax.  There were a lot of things that we didn’t get to see, but it’s hard to cram in an entire country in less than a week, so we stuck to what was most important and enjoyable to us. 

Next up was seeing the sunrise at Angkor Wat.  We were dropped off at the entrance around 5 a.m., and we made our way in the pitch black, knowing where to go only by following the herd of people in front of us and by using the small glow of our cell phones.  As the sun started to rise we could make out the beautiful temple in front of us as well as the other ruins surrounding us.  The sky went from yellow, to pink and purple, and to finally a light blue dawn. 

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Me and Renee in front of Angkor Wat at sunrise.

We spent a few hours around the park exploring the different temples and marveling at the nature and the pure beauty of it all.

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Monk outside of Angkor Wat.
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The faces of Bayon Temple.
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Amazing, giant, old, strong tress at Ta Prohm Temple.
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Taking roots.

So, along with awesome travels often comes traveler’s diarrhea (sorry, no delicate way to put that).  This is no stranger to me, and it thankfully hit me on the last day, as opposed to the beginning or even halfway through this beautiful vacation.  I headed to the local “pharmacy” and told them I needed Cirpo, an antibiotic to kick this parasite’s ass.  Now, I use the term “pharmacy” lightly, because it’s really just a guy selling drugs.  I’m pretty sure that they absolutely do not have to go to school for this.  Thankfully I knew what I was looking for so I could reject the boxes of Imodium and Valium (really?!!?!??!!) that anyone could just walk in and buy without a prescription. 

The cities are very dirty and dusty, and the life of an average Cambodian is a hard one that requires a lot of physical labor.  Many people there are uneducated or undereducated, but somehow everyone seems a lot happier and relaxed compared to many other countries.  Life is particularly hard on the Cambodian women, as they make up a large portion of the manual laborers and sellers at the markets, not to mention the astounding number of women and children sold into sexual slavery.  Cambodia is one of the main “hotspots” for sex trafficking, and I couldn’t help but wonder with all of the rough looking women and children, which ones were victims to this gross, unspeakable act of abuse.  Despite this horrible, unfathomable sadness, there was so much beauty in these people.  Everyone smiles, and I mean really smiles with their entire face and body.  The people seem more genuinely happy with what they have or don’t have compared to so many other countries better off financially. 

All in all, it was a beautiful vacation with the perfect weather.  I definitely recommend visiting between the months of November and May, which is the dry season with the coolest temperatures (averaging between 80°F and 90°F with very little humidity).  This is, however, the highest tourist season with foreigners and families everywhere.  I was surprised to see all the families there with little children, and I couldn’t help but wonder what they were doing there!  Did they work nearby in another country and come here on holiday like us?  Do they live in Cambodia for business and their children are there as well and go to school?  I have no idea, but it was cool to see so many expat children exploring and experiencing another country and culture. 

I hope that you all had an equally enjoyable and special holiday season, wherever you were in the world.  2013 is here, and although it’s starting out quite rough for some of my favorite people, I hope you’ll all remember to stay positive (remembering that breaking down now and again is healthy and cleansing), strive for a healthier and happier life (while breaking some rules along the way), and allow yourself to continue to grow into a person you truly love and admire.

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Cheers to the new year!
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Author:

I have circumnavigated the globe, I have lived overseas, and now I'm back in America about to marry my beautiful fiance, Renee. Follow our adventures in travel, getting healthier with Plexus and starting a brand new life.

One thought on “A Cambodian Christmas

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