Friday, January 16, 2015

Cambodian Expectations - A Mixed Bag of Exceeded, Unfulfilled, and Completely Off the Mark

As we completed our assignment in Cambodia, I took a look back at the Great Expectations post I wrote when we first arrived and were anticipating what we would experience in Phnom Penh.  Here's my wrap-up of those expectations and our Cambodian adventure:

Jeremy will learn to drive a motorbike - Jeremy purchased a moto within 3 months of our arrival.  It soon became his preferred method of transportation.  I remained cautious about motos, although I finally agreed to ride as his passenger six months ago and even drove it for a spin around a parking lot a few weeks ago.

We will learn more about Buddhism - We learned a ton about Buddhism, temples, and holiday rituals.

Clothing and custom-made tailoring will be inexpensive - Clothing at the open markets was very cheap, in price and often in quality.  Of course, this was if we could find "big" expat sizes amid the tiny Asian ones.  Custom-made clothing and tailoring was inexpensive, and I took full advantage of having clothes altered for a better fit and getting custom-made items.  I fell in love with Cambodian silk!

The Embassy workload will be more relaxed than in Nairobi - This was absolutely true and I have to give a shout-out to my bosses Luis and Joe for kicking me out of the office every day at 5:00.  Thank you!

One of us will have to go to Bangkok for medical treatment at least once - Four months in, I broke my finger and went to Bangkok for surgery.  I returned voluntarily later on to get lasik surgery.  Despite Jeremy's bumps and bruises from sports, he avoided Bangkok and healed a sprained ankle in Phnom Penh with a splint followed by physical therapy.

Jeremy will have to expand his heat tolerance for a climate where the "cold season" is 80 degrees - Both of us struggled with the heat for the first four months.  I suffered from a bout of heat rash soon after arrival and we both had days where afternoon activities totally sapped us of our energy and we spent the rest of the day on the couch!  Eventually we both adjusted quite well.

The Cambodian people will be friendly, yet reserved - I would say that most Cambodian people were nice and polite, but friendly would be too strong a word due to how reserved they were.

We will feel safe despite the level of crime in Phnom Penh - Due to the high number of bag snatchings, I was always on high alert whenever I was walking outside with a purse.  Without a purse, I felt free as a bird.

Jeremy will have a difficult time with the language barrier - Most Cambodians spoke a fair amount of English or were in shouting distance of someone who did.  Jeremy got along well enough, despite learning only a handful of Khmer (Cambodian) words.  I faithfully attended language class twice a week and managed to communicate with the non-English speakers I encountered.

We will have several bouts of tummy trouble - This, very fortunately, was not true.  I didn't miss a single day of work due to tummy issues.  Jeremy didn't either, although he caught more colds than he ever has before.

Our previously indoor/outdoor cats will not enjoy living in an apartment with no yard - Happily, our cats adjusted very well to their indoor only environment.  Although they were always mildly curious when we opened the door to our balcony, they never made a dash for it or developed any bad behaviors in protest.

We will enjoy good food that is different from Asian cuisine familiar to Americans - Before we arrived, several friends had told us they liked the food in Phnom Penh.  We interpreted this to mean that Cambodian food was really good.  But I think our friends were actually commenting on the number of restaurants in the city that allow expats to eat all variety of food...other than Cambodian!  Jeremy and I decided that while there were select Cambodian dishes we might enjoy from time to time, our overall opinion of Cambodian food was not high.

The embassy community will be more tight-knit than in Nairobi - We did not find this to be true.  People generally seemed to stick to socializing within their smaller groups of friends.  This was unfortunate - especially since we'd heard many times that smaller embassies were more tight-knit and Embassy Phnom Penh was one-third the size of Embassy Nairobi - but not a huge surprise since Phnom Penh offered more outlets for activities outside the embassy than Nairobi did.

The capital city of Phnom Penh will be pretty, and green with lots of trees and vegetation - This was perhaps the biggest disappointment and made me aware of how important green space is to me.  Phnom Penh had some pretty places - such as the Royal Palace and Wat Phnom - but was mostly a decaying, developing city that will need a lot more time, attention, and money before it might be beautiful again.  It was also a concrete jungle with very little grass, trees, or vegetation.  I put some plants out on my balcony, but how I missed my lush, green gardens of Nairobi and Portland!

We will sing lots of karaoke - We only went to one karaoke bar, in addition to singing karaoke at a handful of house parties.  We definitely failed to take full advantage of this favorite Asian pastime!

Phnom Penh will not be an exciting city with lots to do, but we will make our own fun - Ironically, this was a fairly good summary of our two-year experience in Phnom Penh.  It was a very easy city to live in.  The cost of almost everything was so cheap that it was very easy to buy whatever we wanted, or hire someone to make it, or send someone to hunt it down for us.  This freed up a lot of time that might otherwise be spent on chores or errands.  But the flip side was that Phnom Penh often didn't have a lot of interesting options to fill in that free time.  It didn't take long to see the tourist highlights and take the popular day trips, most of which didn't need to be done twice.  After that, it was hard to know what to do with a free Saturday afternoon, especially because the heat didn't lend itself to midday outside activities.  We made the best of our time and traveled frequently, but my general feeling of Phnom Penh remains:  It was an easy city, but not an exciting one, to live in.  Farewell Phnom Penh, and best wishes!

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Sign, Sign, Everywhere a Sign

English speakers traveling the world have long delighted in spying funny, odd, or just plain wrong written English in the countries they visit.  Here's a sample of my favorites from Cambodia: 

I don't actually understand this sign (above) or what it's for.  I think it's for a public toilet in the downtown area.  Which is not a funny thing, especially since it would be the only public toilet I'm aware of in Phnom Penh.  But the funny part is written at the bottom:
"Mr. Toilet Public - Funded by the World Toilet Association"  

For many months I had assumed this sign (above) for the "Ministry of Cult and Religion" was a misprint and that it meant to read Ministry of Culture and Religion.  But I later found out that the true English name of this government institution matches the sign.  Clearly, Cambodians use the word cult differently and don't attach all the negative connotations to it that we do.

We saw this sign (above) on the highway while taking a road trip.  The statement "Think - Accident Bring Tears, Safety Brings Cheers" is completely true and accurate, despite a slight grammatical error.  But the sentiment is so cute and unlikely to be used on American highways, it brought a grin to my face.

This sign (above) is my favorite!  It was on a fence put up at a construction site near the Royal Palace, whose roof you can see in the background.  It read "No task banned" but I am sure it meant to say "Notice banned" as in no posting any signs on the fence.  But the combination of the mixup of similar sounds (no task = notice, close enough, right?) with the result of the sign stating the exact opposite of its intention (if no task is banned, then posting notices is okay!) still makes me laugh every time I think about it!

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Motos, and Vans, and Chickens...Oh My!

A favorite pastime among expats in Phnom Penh is to talk about the crazy things we see on the roads.  Not only the unsafe driving habits, but the creative ways that Cambodians transport people and cargo.

One endlessly fascinating thing is the number of items that Cambodians can fit on a vehicle. Most Americans would probably only put two people maximum on a motorcycle.  Seeing three or more people on a moto in Phnom Penh is commonplace.  Jeremy says he saw seven once - one adult, two teenagers, and four children - but there is no photographic evidence to back up this claim.

Moto with four passengers - three adults and one child

A similar principle applies to cars here.  Again, Americans would normally count how many seats they have and only fill their car with that many people.  In Cambodia, any available space is fair game.  Including opening up the trunk of a van so that people can hang out the back or putting people on the roof!  Here's such a vehicle we saw employing both ideas at once.  And this was not on a side street on a quick jaunt across town.  This was on a highway connecting two cities. Looks comfy!

There's always room for one - or five - more

There also doesn't seem to be a limit on how much cargo you can pile onto a moto.  This moto driver has side baskets to give him more hauling space.  He's loaded both of them higher than his own head.  I can't imagine how difficult it was to balance that moto, let alone take a turn without tipping over!

2 side baskets provides 4 times as much space!  Great math!

The other amazing thing is the type of cargo seen on vehicles.  Again, the moto is king and Cambodians can fit anything on a moto.  Furniture?  Ladder?  Windshield?  No problem!  It'll work!

Moto transporting furniture

Animals on motos are also commonplace, especially once you get out of the city.  This moto has a pig strapped to the back, and the passenger is actually sitting on top of the pig!

Pig mobile

Chickens are normally tied to the moto by their feet, which leaves them hanging upside down.  A friend of mine saw such a chicken moto once when she was driving to work.  She was horrified to watch as one of the poor upside down chickens vomited.  She didn't eat chicken for days after that!  I have no idea if the chickens I've seen on motos were alive or dead, but given that story, I guess I have to assume they were alive.  

Moto with dozens of chickens

So that I don't end this post by ruining your dinner, I'll finish on a more positive note.  Not all animals on motos are destined for the slaughterhouse.  I've seen many people with their pet dogs on motos.  One day, these two ladies were stopped next to us at a busy intersection.  We had just enough time to find out this cool dog's name - Lucky - and snap a photo before traffic started moving again!

Coolest dog in Phnom Penh - Lucky!

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Marine Ball

The United States Marine Corps was created on November 10, 1775 and since 1921 the Commandant of the Marine Corps has directed all Marines around the world to commemorate that date as the Marine Corps Birthday.  At Embassy Phnom Penh's 2014 Marine Corps Ball, Guest Speaker Brigadier General Paul J. Kennedy joked that the other branches of the armed services think that the entire Marine Corps takes off the whole month of November to throw itself a birthday party.  And at U.S. embassies around the world, there's a bit of a joke that the Ball is simply an excuse for an embassy prom.  There may be a kernel of truth to both these jokes, but the Marine Ball offers a perfect opportunity to remember the sacrifices that Marines make and to appreciate the Marine Security Guards assigned to our embassy.

Because the Marine Ball is a formal occasion, I decided to go all out.  In Cambodia, weddings are often the occasion when ladies get all dolled up.  It is common for ladies to go to the salon for fancy hairdos and layers of makeup.  I chose to follow suit.  I went to my neighborhood salon, Windsor, and got the full package - makeup, false eyelashes, and hair reminiscent of an 80s punk band!

My funky 'do!

Although my hair  made quite a statement, it was actually Jeremy's shoes that stole the show. He wore fabulous silver shoes that transformed him into a god on the dance floor, complete with Michael Jackson sound effects and scene-stealing moves.

Erica's red shoes outshone by Jeremy's silver ones

When the DJ played "Summer Nights" from Grease, it turned into a battle of the sexes on the dance floor, with Jeremy dropping to his knees proclaiming his devotion to the ladies.

The dueling sexes sing "Summer Nights"
It was a great night - a wonderful excuse to get dressed up, dance until we couldn't dance anymore, and party with our Marines!

Erica and Jeremy

Erica with the Embassy Phnom Penh Marine Security Guards

Friday, November 14, 2014

Cambodian Water Festival

Last week, Cambodia celebrated Water Festival for the first time in four years.  Water Festival is normally an annual event, but the festival hasn't been held since 2010 when over 350 died in a stampede on a bridge.  Since then, Water Festival has been cancelled for various official reasons, some legitimate, others questionable.  However, since the announcement that the festival would go on this year, the city has been abuzz, both in excited anticipation of the celebrations and in trepidation of a possible repeat of tragedy.

On the first night of the festival, Jeremy and I went to check things out.  Although Water Festival is centered on the waterfront, every public plaza we passed along the way was packed with people, lined with vendors selling food and goods, and filled with stages for entertainers.  Normally it takes us 30 minutes to walk to the waterfront, but this time it took an hour to make it through the crowded streets.  

Arriving at the waterfront, we were greeted with one of the primary attractions of Water Festival: the illuminated boats!  Those of you familiar with my love of Christmas lights can imagine my excitement at seeing these colorful displays on the water!  Each boat was also playing traditional music.  Lights AND music - I was in heaven!  

My favorite boat:  Ministry of Commerce's map of Cambodia

The boats made such a pretty sight lighting up the dark river.

I also love that the Royal Palace was lit up for the festival.

The next day, I went to see the other principal feature of Water Festival:  the boat races.  Teams around the country have been competing for months to qualify for participation.  I was not prepared for how long these boats would be!  Each boat had at least 75 rowers in it, and sometimes I could see a boat bouncing in the water as the rowers moved in unison to propel it forward.  The races seemed continual, without any fanfare as each race ended and the next one began.  But spectators were clearly cheering on specific teams and having a good time.

Long boat race

Although only three hours out of the three-day festival was enough for me, the excitement was palpable in the air and I definitely caught some of it.  I'm so glad that I had the chance to participate in this unique Cambodian experience. 

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Fun Temples of Chiang Mai

Last weekend, Jeremy and I visited Chiang Mai in Thailand.  Visitors to Chiang Mai essentially have three main options for activities:  1) tour the many temples in the city, 2) visit animal attractions to do things like feed elephants, or 3) travel outside the city for sporty activities such as ziplining.  Not having the energy for a sporty vacation or an interest in animals after our many great safaris in Kenya, we chose the temple route.  We discovered that Chiang Mai has several quirky temple features!

Directly in front of Wat Ket Karam was a dog fountain.  Most of the dogs were spitting water out of their mouths, but one was shown lifting its leg and peeing!  Another one was laying flat on its belly with his legs sticking straight out behind him.  We wondered if this was the "dog temple" because in addition to the fountain, we saw lots of dog statues scattered around the complex.  Very interesting!

Wat Ket Karam Dog Fountain

Located on a mountain just outside the city, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is one of Chiang Mai's most popular temples.  It required a 15-minute taxi ride up a windy, motion-sickness-inducing road.  My stomach was able to settle itself along the 300-step staircase to the temple.  Just inside, we were greeted with this fabulous shrine of Buddha statues wrapped in leopard and tiger prints!

Tiger Buddha at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep

Around the back of the temple was another puzzling display of statues.   I think most were Buddhas, wearing extra adornments such as caps and eyeglasses.  Communing with the Buddhas were some deer and a turtle.  The whole scene reminded me of garden gnomes and the over-the-top lawn displays that can be found sprinkled across America.

Garden Gnome Gathering at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
After this trip, I can say that I am officially templed-out.  I've gone temple touring in three countries - Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand - and also seen temples in Vietnam and Malaysia. Perhaps I should take an offering to the local wat to earn enough merits not to have to visit another temple again!

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Just Stay Still and Look at the Green Light

I have now joined the ranks of people who have had lasik surgery.  I got a great deal from this back-alley surgeon in Phnom Penh.  Just kidding!  I traveled to Bangkok to the well-respected TRSC International Lasik Centre.  

I've been thinking about lasik for a couple months, after an embassy colleague said they had the surgery in Bangkok.  In August, I went for the mandatory pre-operative eye examination.  I had two hours of exams including multiple measurements of my eyes and and several tests of my vision.  Then I watched a video about the surgical procedure and all the things that can go wrong.  After the doctors confirmed I was a candidate for surgery, I returned to Cambodia with six weeks to think about all the complications that could possibly ensue.

To make matters worse, I started talking to other people who had had lasik.  One person told me that during the surgery, he noticed a slight odor...which was actually from the laser cutting into his eye.  Great!  Another person told me that it was very important to listen to the doctor's instructions carefully and focus your eyes exactly as directed.  She had a friend who couldn't keep her eyes still and it messed up the surgery.  Even better!

So I returned to TRSC last Monday very nervous.  But this place had their procedure down pat.  First they gave me a valium to calm my nerves.  Then they gave me dozens of numbing eye drops.  My Patient Counselor, Haruna, even held my hand as the procedure started.

As promised, the surgery was quick and painless.  I felt only slight pressure but no pain.  I did smell a slight, brief odor.  I was easily able to keep my eyes focused and still.  After the surgery, I had to wear these hockey-mask-like eye shields.  I'm sure I was quite a sight at the hotel restaurant for dinner!  When I returned to TRSC the next day and the eye shields were taken off, I could see!  My eyes are still adjusting and still feel like they have a grain of sand in them, but that will get better as the days go on.  I'm really excited about my glasses-free life and don't know why I didn't do this sooner!

Patient Counselor Haruna with me in my stylish eye shields after surgery.