Siem Reap

The past few days here in Siem Reap have been incredible as we have explored and taken in all that this city has to offer. Siem Reap is famous for the Angkor temples… and after seeing them, I understand why so many people flock to northern Cambodia each year to check out the ruins! The city was very touristy compared to what we were used to–of course this comes with pros and cons. A few of the pros: people actually knew a few words of English making asking for directions and bartering much easier, there were tons of souvenir stores, and lots of delicious restaurants. A few of the cons: lots of people, more expensive, not as authentic. Overall, we all really enjoyed Siem Reap and I got to spend a perfect birthday in this wonderful city!

Our first day was relaxed and saved for exploring the city. It is always hard to determine the size of a city just from a map but after walking a few places, we quickly realized just how small Siem Reap was which made walking everywhere possible. We had a big breakfast at the hotel before heading off to explore the local indoor mall, Yeay Tep Shrine, Preah Angcheck pagoda along with the large city parks which were filled with trees and statues. We visited the central market and the old market for a bit of souvenir shopping… our first real opportunity of the trip. The souvenir stores had quite a bit of variety from shirts and electronics to traditional paintings and small statues to beads and scarves to DVDs… they seemed to have it all. But many of the stores had the same items so as we continued to shop, the shopping sped up as we had seen many of the things before. Eventually, by the end of our few days in Siem Reap, we were all excited when we found a new souvenir item, ha! At night, the night markets would open up so even more shopping was available. We never really figured out the difference between the day and night markets as it seemed like most markets were open both day and night and the entire city seemed to be a night market… but those are just technical details, right! I also had a chance to call home–I am continually surprised by the amount of WIFI available here in Southeast Asia so it has been extremely easy to keep in touch compared to past trips (especially in Africa) where WIFI was sparse. Whenever I call home and skype, my mom is able to show me my kitten who is anxiously awaiting my return to play… I don’t think he is getting quite the same attention as he continually is causing ruckus around my parent’s house, ha! It has been great being able to speak to both of them and see Mr. Abella quite frequently!

The next day, we were off to explore the temples. We had a wonderful tour guide who grew up here in Siem Reap and was able to give us many personal accounts of his own life growing up throughout the years as well as give us the rundown of the history of the temples. We heard from a few people to watch the sunrise at Angkor Wat so we met up with the tour guide at 5:00 am and we were off! We stopped at the ticket station where we each had to get a “passport” so we could visit all of the temples before making our way to the famous Angkor Wat. Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the world. Built during the early 12th century, Angor Wat was built with the mindset that it would be used by the Khmer kings to rule over a vast land–from Vietnam to China to the Bay of Bengal. This was the case for King Suryavarman II who built Angkor Wat and a few years after him until Angkor was attacked by the Chams (an enemy of the Khmer) thus the capital was moved by Jayavarman VII just a few years later. Angkor Wat was still used for other purposes and remains the most famous of the temples. The remaining 100+ stone temples at Angkor Wat are remains of a grand religious, social and administrative metropolis. Unfortunately, other buildings like palaces, schools, and houses have all decayed as they were built of wood. The temple has extraordinary Khmer architecture with exceptional detail–although some things have been destroyed throughout the years (through various battles and vandalism). The temple stands 65 meters high and is built in three layers representing the three worlds–the underworld, the world in which we live, and the heavens. Because Angkor Wat is so sacred, laws have been put into place to ensure that nothing is built higher than 65 meters. The temple is also extremely symbolic–the walls are covered with carvings that display Hindu stories and fables which were taught to the temple visitors throughout the years. Initially, it was constructed as a Hindu temple but in the 14th or 15th century, it was converted to a Buddhist temple. Angkor Wat means “City of Temples”–appropriate for a temple of such size (occupying approximately 2 square kilometers) that is surrounded by a large moat. Angkor Wat, along with the other temples here in Siem Reap, were built using sandstone blocks. Our tour guide shared with us many of the Hindu stories and fables which were carved into the walls. Angkor Wat has become an important part of Cambodia as an outline of Angkor Wat is found on their national flag and it has become a huge tourist attraction which has helped to stimulate the economy. We had all been looking forward to visiting Angkor Wat since the planning stages of the trip and it surely didn’t disappoint! When we finished Angkor Wat, I was already sweating excessively as the temperature was hot and humidity was getting high by just 8:30 am. Next, we were off to Angkor Thom–the great city which encompasses more than 9 square kilometers and houses several monuments. Angkor Thom was established by King Jayavarman VII’s empire after Angkor Wat had been attacked. Angkor Thom was much bigger and hence became the capital. Angkor Thom is also surrounded by a moat and contains five entrances–one on the East, one on the South, one on the West, and two on the North (one for the living and one for the dead). The first temple we visited in Angkor Thom was Bayon, a temple dedicated to Buddha. The distinctive feature of this temple is the massive stone faces that many believe to be representative of King Jayavarman VII himself. Traditionally, Khmer monarchs thought of themselves as “devaraja” or god-king so this could certainly be a possibility. Bayon was also built in three layers, one for each of the worlds. Unlike Angkor Wat, Bayon felt tight with everything being much closer together giving the temple a very different feel. The outer wall had stories carved into it, much like Angkor Wat. Just like Angkor Wat, we explored the whole temple from bottom to top, immersing ourselves in the beauty of the architecture. Next up was Baphuon, a three-tiered temple mountain nearby (located within Angkor Thom). This temple was dedicated to the Hindu God Shiva. In the 15th century, this temple was also converted to a Buddhist temple. Most of this particular temple had collapsed or been broken down so it took a fifty-year renovation project to reopen the temple just three years ago. Now the temple looks beautiful and you are able to walk through most of it, including up to the top which had beautiful views. It was starting to get extremely hot and humid as we explored this temple and we were all dripping of sweat. Fortunately there was a bit of breeze at the top but it didn’t help much. Adjacent to Baphuon was the Royal Palace where the king himself lived. Although the Royal Palace itself no longer stands, two “pools” (more like ponds, called Sras Srei) and a temple (Phimeanakas temple) remain. Because of the sexism that existed amongst Khmer people (which still exists today), the larger pool was for males while the smaller pool was for females. It is believed that the king could have up to 2,000 women visitors… which we would call prostitutes today. But they didn’t see this as problematic back in the day as the king supposedly gained strength from the women… hm. I found it extremely ironic that right next to the pools was Phimeanakas temple, the king’s private temple. This Hindu temple was small but tall for its size. The legend associated with the Phimeanakas temple was that Naga, a nine-headed serpent-spirit, lived atop the temple and each night when the king ascended to the top, Naga would transform into a woman. Then they lied down and prayed together for an hour. If Naga wouldn’t transform or appear, it meant that the king’s days were numbered. We finished up walking around Angkor Thom and headed towards our last temple of the day, Ta Prohm. Ta Prohm was originally founded by Jayavarman VII as a Buddhist monastery and university. Still today, it has a very jungle-like feel as trees have grown within the temple structures. The temple was abandoned for centuries hence trees and plants were able to grow within the temple to become apart of the permanent structure that still stands today and makes this temple unique. This temple was used as a location in the film “Tomb Raider” and hence, some locals call this temple Angelina Jolie’s temple! Unfortunately and fortunately this finished our tour. I was grateful as I don’t think I’ve ever been so sweaty in my life… but also bummed because we did get to see some really cool things! After a long day of temple exploring, it was time for a shower, dinner, and some relaxation! We hit up a few of the night market shops but we were all in bed early, ready for a great night of sleep!

The third day in Siem Reap was a day of relaxation… a good day break after a month of go, go, go! I was able to catch the USA vs Ghana World Cup game despite it starting at 5:00 in the morning… it was quite the game! I stayed inside at the hotel for much of the early afternoon, working on sorting photos and planning some things for the next leg of the trip like flights and hotels. Plus, the air conditioning felt great after being so sweaty and disgusting the day before! In the afternoon, I wandered the nearby mall and I bought myself a big scoop of Oreo ice cream for $1… yummy! Afterwards, I returned back to the hotel and it was time for Laura and I to get massages… in the comforts of air conditioning! Our traditional Khmer masseuses arrived right on time as we enjoyed an hour of kneading, stretching, and techniques focused on pressure points… oh, it was so relaxing! Peter, one of my medical school classmates, headed home today to make it to a wedding so we’re down to three!

The fourth day in Siem Reap happened to be my birthday!! I bought some bananas at the market the previous day then cut them up for breakfast as they had an important use for later. We grabbed a tuk tuk and headed back towards the temples and went searching for monkeys! Fortunately we found some right by the road. Before we were even able to get out of the tuk tuk, on of the monkeys was nearly climbing in! I got out successfully holding a bag of bananas that were freshly cut. One of the monkeys must have known what was in the bag as he lunged at it which turned into a game of war. Fortunately I won, but not before the monkey ripped open the bag and half of the cut up bananas were already on the ground… at least it brought over a few more monkeys. I was able to feed a few of them but I really enjoyed just watching the creatures. Although they weren’t as tame as the ones in the temples, the monkeys let you get fairly close which made for some great photos. There were also quite a few baby monkeys clinging onto their mothers and climbing poles. Lets just say, it was certainly a wonderful experience and I was so happy to make some new monkey friends! When we were done with the monkeys, we carried onto Tonle Sap Lake, about forty minutes from Siem Reap. When we arrived, we bought a boat ticket then headed down for our tour to begin. We traveled about 5 km by boat to the floating city… literally a floating city in a massive river. In the low rain season, the lake is only about 250 km2 in size but during the rainy season, the lake can get up to 12,000 km2. More than 1,115 families live on the lake and literally everything is surrounded by water. To get anywhere, one must take a boat. The community is extremely poor with few opportunities to leave hence most people who are born here stay here for life. The community does a lot of fishing as a source of income. The strangest thing that I saw on the river was a floating pig lot… literally a family had pigs just floating on the river! I even got to take over as captain of the boat for a bit… it was a blast going fast! We stopped by a school and a crocodile farm before heading back down the river towards the starting point. That night, we headed to the Khoulen Restaurant for a buffet dinner followed by a traditional Aspara dancing show. The buffet seemed to have endless food options which consisted of appetizers, soups, main courses, make your own stations, and of course dessert! I was incredibly surprised with the amount and the quality of the food… especially since the whole production was only $12. We enjoyed the show–the traditional dancing was wonderful and the costumes were quite impressive! It was a wonderful birthday and it was nice hearing from so many friends and family! I appreciate the warm wishes as I am yet another year older.

I am parting ways with the two who are left from my group as they head home tomorrow night while I head to Phuket, Thailand tomorrow afternoon. I will be traveling alone for about a month and I am looking forward to many adventures throughout Thailand and Laos! Stay tuned!

~Susan

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Preah Angcheck pagoda

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Laura and I in front of Angkor Wat

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Angkor Wat

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Angkor Thom

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Baphuon

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With traditionally dressed Cambodian people

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Ta Prohm

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Banana peels–gonna make some monkeys happy!

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Me with a monkey

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Baby monkey

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Mom and baby

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Monkey

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Eddie, myself, and Laura on the Tonle Sap Lake

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Pigs on the Tonle Sap Lake

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Driving the boat!

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Church on the Tonle Sap Lake

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Dinner buffet

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Traditional Aspara Dance

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Phnom Penh

On Friday, mid-morning, we took a taxi two-and-a-half hours to Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia. Phnom Penh is also the largest city in Cambodia with a population just exceeding 1.5 million people… not too big from American standards but definitely a “big city feel” coming from Kampot. We had a lot to see in a very short amount of time (as we quickly added this to the itinerary as we were ultimately passing through the capital city anyways). We started off at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a museum dedicated to the terrible time of the Khmer Rouge regime. The site was originally a high school which got turned into Security Prison 21 (S-21) by the Khmer Rouge regime between 1975 and 1979. This prison was just 1 of 150 execution centers in the country and as many as 20,000 prisoners were killed at S-21. The museum remained just like it was in 1979 as we saw the wooden and brick cells that the prisoners stayed in. Some of the cells were small for single people while others were large where lots of people stayed. On the walls in the prison cells, there were photos of recently killed prisoners with blood splattered on the ground. The prison had very strict rules and regulations–for example, if a prisoner drank water without asking first and getting permission, the prisoners were severely beaten. If prisoners even spoke a word that offended or went against the views of the soldiers, they were severely beaten. The prison was extremely unhygienic as skin diseases, lice, rashes, and ringworm were all rampant among the prisoners. Further, many of the prisoners had to eat human feces and drink human urine. The prisoners were often interrogated and the prison guards often asked about their family members then proceed to go and kill them. As we went through the museum, there were lots of pictures of prisoners and their living conditions along with pictures of their beatings and killings. We saw rusted iron bedframes, detailed autobiographies of the prisoners which were taken when the prisoners arrived and cabinets filled with human skulls. The following day, we visited Choeung Ek, one of nearly 300 killing fields that existed here in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge regime. Between 1975 and 1979, more than two million people died, approximately half being killed and the other half dying from starvation and disease. These two million people came from a population of only 8 million… wow. At this particular killing field, nearly 9,000 bodies were discovered after the fall of the Khmer Rouge. Most of the individuals killed at this particular site came from Tuol Sleng. The mass graves were marked off as we were guided around and learned about the horrific events here at Choeung Ek. Essentially, everything was very routine–initially a truck full of people was brought once every two weeks from Tuol Sleng to Choeung Ek at night. The individuals were told that they were being moved to a new location–however they were unaware that this new location would be the end. The individuals would be immediately put into a holding room until the soldiers decided to kill them… typically this wasn’t long. Often, poison was used for mass killings to save on ammunition. No one was exempt–women, children, everyone that came to Choeung Ek or any other killing field never left. There were other ways of torture and killings that were gruesome as well. The dead were thrown into mass graves then covered with DDT and dirt to try to minimize the stint. Towards the end of the Khmer Rouge regime, one or two truckloads of people were arriving each day. The events are certainly tragic and it is sad that anything like this ever occurs but it is even more disturbing that things like this have happened so recently in history… and are still happening today. Today, Choeung Ek remains as a memorial to those who died there and in all other killing fields across the country. In the center of the killing field is a memorial stupa (like a temple) which was built as a remembrance–to the people that died and to the times that were harder. It houses all of the skulls that they found at Choeung Ek and has put them in a far better place than they previously were in a mass grave. Any experience such as these are obviously extremely hard but I am always grateful to have the opportunity to learn about what really happened at the place itself. This is a time of horror in Cambodia’s history that no one here will ever forget about.

I also had the opportunity to visit Cambodia’s Royal Palace, where the king of Cambodia resides. Built in the 1860s, the palace is a great representation of Khmer architecture from buildings to temples to murals to statues and memorials. I was able to visit Throne Hall, a place nowadays devoted to religious and royal ceremonies such as coronations and royal weddings. Of course there was landscaping galore which added to the royal-ness! Overall, I thought the palace was a beautiful place… one certainly fit for any king!

As I mentioned, we didn’t have long in Phnom Penh but we made the most of it. Besides the museums and Royal Palace, we got a chance to walk along the riverfront and enjoy a nice dinner with a breeze… fortunately our dinner was not the fried bugs on the street that we passed… eww, ha. We went to the night market for a bit of shopping and entertainment… and scoped out a few dollar DVDs. The best part about Phnom Penh might have been the Dairy Queen that we stumbled across… yes, a Dairy Queen… I was certainly a very happy camper. It is summer after all… and what’s a summer without a few blizzards right! Ha.

We traveled from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap where we will be for the next few days enjoying the sights before more adventures begin! Hope all is well and a huge HAPPY FATHER’S DAY to my wonderful dad… I’m sorry I’m not there to celebrate but we shall celebrate soon! I love you!

~Susan

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Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

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Stupa memorial at the killing field

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Cambodia’s Royal Palace

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Cambodia’s Royal Palace

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Phnom Penh’s Night Market

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DAIRY QUEEN 🙂

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Final Days of Project CURA

Wow–where did the time go? I feel like this is a similar trend when traveling–the time always seems to go far too fast! Well, we are officially done with Project CURA. After months and months of preparation, it has all come to an end. Fortunately, it is not quite back to reality yet as we have a few vacation days as a group and then I’m staying over here for another month exploring Thailand and Laos.

Anyways, the past few days have been filled with health camps–both at schools and in the villages. Because there are so many children and so few schools, students only attend school in the morning or the afternoon… which means long lunch breaks for us. Over the past few days, we were able to explore an amazing pagoda with stunning, bright artwork during our lunch time. Many pagodas are located next to schools so we have been able to see quite a few over the past two weeks. Speaking of school, it has become quite evident over the past two weeks how much their school system is lacking over here… from all aspects. First, you have teachers that sometimes show up… or show up late. Obviously this doesn’t set a good example for the students at all. And even if the teachers are there, it is debatable whether they are even teaching. At one of the schools, I walked by the classrooms (just from curiosity) and only one of the four teachers were even in the classroom… sounds a bit problematic to me! Although the students do go to school on Saturday, their shortened daily schedule means that the students are only in class for 24 hours/week whereas in grade school, I was in school for more than 32 hours/week–a significant difference. The teacher ability is also extremely questionable. For instance, we were supposed to help teach a computer class (we did this a few times throughout the two weeks) and although we were told that they have been exposed to computers and had computer class one or two times a week, it seemed as if they had never touched a computer. They literally didn’t even know how to use a touchpad. There is a huge disconnect between supposed teaching and learning here–as I would say is very typical of other third-world countries that I have visited before. Although the children are wonderful (and extremely well behaved here in Cambodia), it is sad knowing just how much resources lack over here.

Despite working hard the past few days, we have also had a bit of time to enjoy our last few days here in Kampot. One afternoon, after we finished our health clinic, we headed to Phnom Star Mountain. All of the people we have been working with the past two weeks really wanted to take us there and from the way they made it sound, you just moto there to go up the mountain. Unknown to us, we were actually climbing this mountain… a bit of a game change… but we were all still up. Fortunately it was a bit cooler of a day (not the typical 100 degrees but rather 90 or so!)… and thank goodness it was as we were all still in our scrubs so we were hot and gross to begin with! The hike up wasn’t too bad and we got to see a lot along the way. From the top, you could see the ocean, Phu Quoc (the Vietnamese island that we stayed at), and the beautiful landscape of Cambodia. Surprisingly, an elderly lady actually lives at the top of the mountain–the locals were telling us that she goes up and down the mountain four times/day… dang! We enjoyed the breeze at the top and talked for awhile before checking out a nearby cave and heading back down. When we got to the bottom, it started raining. It seems as if the monsoon season just started here in Cambodia which means monstrous rain… and I mean monstrous! In fact, after waking up last night to the pouring rain and strong winds, I was pretty sure that my bungalow would be either washed away or blown away… fortunately that was not the case! Overall, we got pretty lucky to miss most of the monsoon season as it was a little late this year–and dealing with monsoon weather everyday while trying to perform health clinics just wouldn’t be the most ideal situation! After our health clinics today, we headed into town to watch “Enemies of the People,” a documentary about one of the leaders of the Khmer Rouge. It was an extremely powerful movie about the motivations behind the killings and the events that took place from 1975-1979. When we get to Phnom Penh, we are visiting the genocide museum so I will be able to fill you in more then (as it deserves quite a bit of attention).

Finally, as I have mentioned in my past few posts, we have made good friends with a couple who we took to the hospital back on June 6th. As a quick reminder, we were told about an elderly man (who lost one leg from a landmine twenty years ago) who had no interest in living any longer. We immediately headed to see the man who was lying on a wooden ledge–certainly not looking to lively. He didn’t seem to have any sort of spark as he’d had extreme pain for about a week and hadn’t moved from his ledge in about a week. We convinced him to head into the hospital and we took him right away. We helped him get settled in (by the way, this is not a place where you would ever want to be sick–it looked like a prison, not a hospital) and promised to come back to visit. Well, we visited everyday and had the fortunate opportunity to see the man get better right before our eyes. Each day, the elderly man looked better and better. He would hold our hand and it was evident how much simple presence made to them. His wife never left his side throughout the week at the hospital and the two of us clicked. She was a wonderful lady and despite having a complete language barrier, I loved seeing her everyday. She would greet me with a huge hug and then grab my hand and hold it most of the time while we were at the hospital. It is amazing how much simple presence can mean to others. We didn’t really do anything at all other than show up to the hospital everyday and check on them… but that was enough. As I mentioned, the elderly man got better each and everyday and tonight when we visited, he was off of his IV and sitting up in his bed. This is a huge transformation from just a week ago. It was absolutely wonderful to see him with a smile on his face. These daily visits to the hospital have become my favorite part of the day so it was extremely hard telling them that this would be our last visit as we’re leaving Kampot tomorrow morning. We exchanged lots of hugs and took pictures but they will definitely be people that I won’t be forgetting anytime soon. I will certainly miss them.

Tomorrow we are heading to Phnom Penh, the capital city, where we will spend one night before heading to Siem Reap. We are all excited for a bit of adventure and change of pace to come!!

~Susan

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Project CURA with the Solaid Staff

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Beautiful pagoda

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Inside the pagoda

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Inside the pagoda

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At the top of Phnom Star Mountain

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Time to Explore Kampot

After a busy week of volunteering, we got a bit of relaxation time this past weekend to explore a bit of what Kampot has to offer. We started off Saturday morning with a Solaid meeting–giving feedback on our experience with the organization and our thoughts on how to improve. It was great getting to give suggestions and discuss different projects underway with the organization. In the afternoon, Dr. Budd took us to a few spots around Kampot. First, we were off to visit Phnom Chhngok Cave Temple. The temple is located within the cave so we had to hike to the top of the caves to find a little temple just inside. A few locals came with us then asked us if we’d like to climb through the caves–although we were a bit weary about where we were actually going, we decided to go for it! The caves were extremely dark and dusty which wasn’t a good mix for the sweat that was already dripping off of my body. But we climbed down, down, and down through the cave to the bottom to exit–fortunately we were all safe despite the questionable conditions! After the cave, we stopped by the hospital to follow up on our patient there. We have visited everyday and the couple is so grateful to see us–it is quite remarkable just how much presence can mean sometimes. Despite the language barrier, we certainly enjoy visiting and seeing the elderly man get stronger each day. As I was just one of the two students to initially take the elderly man and his wife into the hospital, the wife has taken a comfort with me and greets me everyday with a hug… its quite a beautiful thing and I’m really going to miss them when the man is released from the hospital (hopefully tomorrow or the next day). We also did a bit of souvenir shopping before stopping by the market in Kampot. The market is Walmart-esk in a sense that the market has anything and everything you could want… but everything is sold by different vendors and the hygiene differs greatly between the two. For instance, I found it amusing that a woman was fanning the meat which was sitting out in the open to try to keep flies off of the meat… different standards for sure! The market was also very short–great for Cambodians and myself but not so great for the other people in my group as they had to duck as they walked through the entire market–quite an amusing sight! We also visited the old, abandoned train station.

On Sunday, the four of us headed to Kep (via a tuk tuk)–a small town situated on the ocean. We saw the main attractions in Kep (a few statues and a market–nothing too crazy) before hiring a boat to take us to a nearby island called Rabbit Island. The island certainly reminded me of Gilligan’s Island as the island seemed to be deserted and isolated… this made for a nice, relaxing day as there were probably fifty total people on the island (more than half of which were workers). We grabbed a hut near the ocean and I rented an inner tube for a dollar before hitting the water. The ocean water was much cooler than it was in nearby Phu Quoc which we all really appreciated. The day was quite relaxing as we simply bobbed up and down with the waves, enjoying the nice breeze in such a beautiful place. Although I would have been content staying for weeks, we had to head back to Kampot. If you know me at all, you know that I’m willing (and wanting) to try whatever! Well, I’ve been wanting to ride a motobike for a few weeks now (basically the entire time that we’ve been in Southeast Asia) and I figured this would be the safest place to do it as I’ll be in busy cities the rest for the rest of my trip. So, I was off on a mission to find a motobike. It wasn’t hard at all to find a motobike and fortunately I was able to find an automatic! So I hired the motobike for two hours and paid a solid $3 for lots of enjoyment and fun. I rode all over the town and explored all of Kampot. The motobike was easier to handle than what I was expecting and I’ve already informed my parents that I’ll be looking to get my motorcycle license when I get home (and then take my mom’s out for a spin!).

Today was more of an admin day as we worked on some excel files for keeping track of heights and weights along with a multitude of other side projects. Of course we visited our dear friend at the hospital who is growing stronger each and every day! We also visited a health center where all patients must visit before being referred to the hospital where they can see a doctor. Let’s just say–it’s better to not get sick here in Cambodia! In the afternoon, we were back teaching English at a nearby school. The students must have practiced their song from last time (“Twinkle Twinkle Little Star) as they all had the song memorized and perfected… to say the least, we were blown away! We sang a few other songs and played a few days before the class period was over. After dinner, we were able to take a boat cruise from our guesthouse which took us down the river to see fireflies and phosphorous plankton in the river which lit up at night–it was a beautiful night out for a boat ride anyways so it was a fabulous night.

We have just a few days left here in Kampot before our CURA trip is officially over. Fortunately we have a bit of extra, fun travel time before the group heads home and I head to Thailand–so look for many more adventures to come! Hope all is well!

~Susan

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A temple in Kampot

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Hospital bed

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Temple in the Cave

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The woman fanning the flies off of the meat

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Kep

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Rabbit Island

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Rabbit Island

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Night boat ride

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Staying Busy in Kampot

Time is going incredibly fast as we’ve been in Kampot for nearly a week! We’ve stayed extremely busy with our volunteer organization but we have had some pretty neat experiences in the process. As I mentioned in my last blog, we are working with Solaid–an NGO based here in Cambodia. We have continued our nutritional checks (checking the children’s height and weights) at many schools in the surrounding area and have conducted a few more computer learning classes. Our trip is also working with an organization called First Sight which aims at providing children (or adults), around the world, with their first pair of glasses. We received a donated kit from First Sight that we brought with us from the states. It includes an eye chart, lens, frames, etc so we are able to construct glasses for people in need right then and there. As we have been visiting the schools to check for heights and weights, we have also set up a basic eye examination station where everyone’s vision is tested. The process is actually pretty smooth–we test both eyes individually to determine the vision acuity of each eye. Surprisingly, most of the children have perfect 20/20 vision–these are the easy kids who are very fast to check! For those needing glasses, we have a lens tree that we use to help determine which lens would be the best fit. When ready, the newly made glasses are distributed and ready to be worn! It is neat seeing some of the reactions as for many, this Is the first time that they can see correctly for numerous years! Some are unaware that their vision is altered while others are fully aware. This has been a nice aspect of the work that we’ve been doing here in Kampot and we’ve loved some of the expressions when putting on the glasses for the first time!

The past few days, we’ve also helped out a local school with their botanical garden by translating the name of their plants into English with an English description. The school is hoping to attract more tourists to the botanical garden but it has been difficult without English labels–fortunately, this is now fixed! One of my favorite experiences of the trip so far has been teaching English one afternoon to a few classes. I asked some basic questions like what is your name, do you have any siblings, and what is your favorite food. Then I taught them how the difference between even and odd numbers–they did great with the chanting of numbers, ha! And finally, it was music time. The classes sang a few songs for us in English–my favorite was the “Tuk Tuk song” which turned out to be the wheels on the tuk tuk… It was hilarious! We taught them how to sing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes… they seemed to enjoy both!

We’ve also continued to check up on Solaid families. Today, we learned of a man who was in extreme pain and simply wanted to die. We went to his house and found him simply lying on raised platform in the shade. His wife explained to us that he hadn’t been feeling well for a few weeks and that they were too far from a health aid–although health care is free for very poor families here in Cambodia, the lack of transportation can be problematic. To complicate the matters, the man stepped on a land mine about twenty years ago and lost a leg so his personal ability to move is quite limited. We loaded him and his wife up in our Solaid truck and I was able to join the staff as we took them into the health aid. The situation here in Cambodia works such that you must first visit a health aid who will assess you and determine if they can help you or if you need to go to a hospital to see a doctor. The issue is that these health aids have very minimal training and I’m venturing to say would know just as much as the average American about health care. That being said, the doctors aren’t a ton better here. Fortunately, we got a referral so we were off to the hospital. When we arrived, the nurse asked what the man was here for and he described his pain to her. Remember, that this man was literally hoping to die he has been in so much pain. Well, the nurse scrutinized him for coming in without a real problem… I was shocked and saddened as it was clear that the elderly man was in need of help! Her advice was to go home, drink lots of water, and eat lots of vegetables… and miraculously he should get better. Luckily, we were there and insisted that he see a doctor. Finally she gave in and pointed to a room where we could find a bed. The room was open to the outside and hot, crammed with ten beds, three of which were free. The elderly man (who was quite scared in the first place) took a seat on the old, metal bed that contained the thinnest mat I’ve probably ever seen. The other individuals were all hooked up to IVs and just stared at the newcomer as the nurse finally assessed him (the nurse was the only staff member present to monitor approximately twenty patients). He, too, was given an IV and told to wait for the doctor. We weren’t sure when the doctor would come so we told them that we would check back. I now understand why the man would rather die than even visit the hospital in the first place–the hospital itself seems like a death sequence. When we checked back about five hours later, the man had just been seen by a doctor. We are planning on stopping by tomorrow to see if there are any updates.

Although volunteering has kept us extremely busy (and has made us all quite exhausted), we’ve had a bit of time to explore Kampot. We took a beautiful river cruise and we joined a local family for lunch one day which was delicious! The town also has a small movie theatre where we were able to view “The Killing Fields,” a movie about the mass killings here in Cambodia. I’ll expand upon the event in a blog to come. We have also visited many temples around Kampot including a beautiful, massive one along the river. The temples have so much character to them–it has been a lot of fun getting to check them out!

Time for a short rest before another long day!
~Susan

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Beautiful Kampot

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A child receiving their first pair of glasses

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Teaching Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star

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And just because 🙂

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Back to Volunteering here in Cambodia

After our few days of vacation on Phu Quoc Island (Vietnam), we are back to volunteering! Fortunately our travel from Vietnam to Cambodia went quite smooth–we took a ferry to Vietnam’s mainland and then a minibus across the border. We were a little hesitant about the border crossing as there were both good and bad stories online so we weren’t sure what to expect. Luckily our driver took our passports and we walked right through the Vietnam side and surprisingly enough, we didn’t even have to walk through the Cambodian entry terminal… so I guess we could have used anyone’s passports to get into this country as they never even saw us in person. We got dropped off in Kampot, a small riverside town in southern Cambodia. The town has a population of 40,000 with few tourists so the atmosphere is extremely different than that of Ho Chi Minh city. It will be nice to not have motobikes everywhere honking at all times of the day! Anyways, Kampot is home to an organization called Solaid. Solaid was founded by Dr. Steven Budd in 2007 with the mindset that “a world that provides adequate health and education is a better place for everyone.” Dr. Budd actually graduated from Creighton undergrad before taking a few years off to travel the world then attending medical school in Ireland. He also completed two residencies (family medicine and preventative medicine) and also earned an MPH (masters in public health). Dr. Budd wanted to do service around the world but looked at service in a very different manner than most people. Instead of going into a community with the mindset of “I’m a doctor, I’m going to build a medical practice here,” he approached the community and asked their needs. The main need was for education, help for the extremely needy (as many have remained extremely poor since the war ended in 1975), and healthcare. Taking the feedback into consideration, Dr. Budd made those wishes a reality with his organization Solaid. Solaid has grown over the years with most of the work focusing on education and helping those who are extremely poor. Solaid provides remedial courses for those falling behind in school or for those who just need a bit of extra help. Solaid also keeps good tabs on the students as they progress year to year, ensuring that the students have proper nutrition and are feeling as they should! This is where most of our work over the next two weeks will focus on. Solaid also helps “most vulnerable families,” as they call them… or families who have very little. Solaid offers grants (thus the families don’t have to repay them) to families who come up with a project that needs funding. Typically these projects focus on a way for the family to earn income while a few of the projects focus on fixing homes, etc. For example, families can apply to get funding for starting a chicken farm (at their house). By starting a chicken farm (and by properly taking care of the chickens), a family can earn income in which they can put towards their needs (food, shelter, school, clothes, etc). The program is structured in such a way that the families have to meet a bunch of criteria–simply so that the project can be sustainable. For example, if the family wants to build a chicken farm, they must have a place to keep their chickens. This must be checked by a staff member of Solaid before a grant can be given. The chief of the village must also grant permission for Solaid to give money to these families–essentially the chief ensures that this is a family in need and not a family that can simply tell a good story. Sometimes the grants are extremely small–$20. Other times, the grants are more depending on the situation. Solaid checks back with these families to see how their projects are coming and to check to ensure that the basic needs of the families are met. Although Dr. Budd and his wife lived in Kampot for many years, he now lives in Iowa and travels to Cambodia about four times a year to ensure that everything is running smoothly. The organization has grown and there are many staff members for the organization who run the day-to-day things to ensure that Solaid runs smoothly. We will get to know a few of these workers during our time here in Cambodia! Dr. Budd has been working with Project CURA for the last five consecutive years and we are very grateful that he has welcomed our group once again this year! Although there is still a lot I don’t know about Solaid, the organization sounds like it has been extremely helpful to citizens here in Kampot throughout the last eight years and I am excited to be apart of the organization for the next two weeks!

When we arrived to Kampot, we arrived just across the street to where we were supposed to meet Dr. Budd… this was perfect as none of us had any idea where anything was in the city. We had a quick snack (as we were all starving) and got to know Dr. Budd as he told us about himself and his organization. We took a walk down to the river, which was beautiful, then packed up a tuk tuk with all of our luggage. Here in Cambodia, tuk tuks are motobikes that pull an attached carriage that can hold four people (or more if you squeeze!). Laura, Eddie, and Peter all piled in with the luggage (I don’t even know how they managed to fit) and I jumped on the moto with Dr. Budd and we headed to the guesthouse where we’ll be spending the next two weeks. The guesthouse has private bungalows and two houses–we were in two rooms on the top floor of the house. The place is very nature-friendly and rustic but beautiful. We were a little worried as people kept telling us how much hotter Cambodia is than Vietnam… we were dying of the heat in Vietnam so we had no idea how we were going to survive Cambodia! Surprisingly though, we agree that it is much cooler here–probably because we are so close to the river and to the ocean… we are all extremely grateful for the milder (yet still extremely hot) temperatures. The nights cool down quite a bit which makes the non-aircon room comfortable at night! We settled in then headed back into town with Dr. Budd and talked about the schedule for the next two weeks–it sounds like we will be extremely busy doing all types of work from taking blood pressures to checking the nutritional status of children to even teaching English and computer classes.

Our first full day was spent in a rural village close to Kampot called Tuk Kiev. Here we did basic health screening–the adults had their blood pressures taken while the children had their height and weight checked. The chief of the village spread the word that we would be coming so we had most of the village file through. If an adult had extreme hypertension, we would give them medication to treat the issue. We ran the heights and weights of the children to see their percentile ranking (focused on the low end, not the high end as we would in America) and if the child was less than the 30th percentile, a worker from Solaid will follow up with the family to discuss nutrition and how to stay healthy. We spent most of the day at the village and saw lots of people! We also had the chance to visit a very elderly lady to see the hut that Solaid had built for her a few years ago!

Today we spent the day at schools performing hygiene awareness (the importance of washing hands, etc) and nutritional checks (heights and weights). We set up under a tree and we were able to check about 200 grade-school children just in the morning. The middle school also had a request–that we teach how to play board games. The school received board games more than a year ago but because all of the games are in English, they have been sitting in a box as no one knows how to play them. Peter and I sat down at our stations with a few teachers and students and began explaining games–ones that I knew and ones that I didn’t know (fortunately there were directions). We played memory, mancala, sets, banana grams, gnu, uno, and many others (about 10 in total). The children and staff took notes vigorously in hopes to teach the other children at the school. It was tough with the language barrier but we worked through (with a few rule modifications) and I think they understand, which certainly was the goal. It is such a shame that the games have simply been sitting in a box because they didn’t know how to play them… but hopefully the games can provide lots of hours of fun for the children from hear on out! We headed to an area with temples and got to explore them before having lunch. There were so many of them–big ones, small ones, bright-colored ones, boat-shaped ones, etc. After lunch, we visited a secondary school where we taught computer classes to the seventh and eighth graders. The computer only has three small computers (for a class of about 25) so we had to split up into small groups of 8-9. It was challenging as we weren’t really given any specifics and although the children supposedly knew some English, most were too shy to speak. It was hard gauging what the students did and did not know. I asked them if they knew what program to open to type–they kind of all just gave me blank stares… so I started with the basics. I showed them Microsoft Word and how you were able to type things then I handed the computer around to each of them to try to open it themselves. It was pretty evident that although the students might have had a computer class in the past, they probably weren’t given the chance to practice themselves as some of the students didn’t know how to use the touchpad. We worked our way through it though and by the end, each of the students had the chance to learn how to highlight words, how to change the size and font, how to add bold, italics, or underlining to the text and how to change the text color. That was about all we were able to get through in an hour for each of the classes but the students really seemed to learn a lot… for some, I really think it was the first time they ever got to control the computer! We finished our day meeting a most vulnerable family. This lady applied for a grant to start a chicken business. Although I didn’t see a chicken coup, she was feeding the chickens when we arrived. Using a translator and broken English, we were able to gather a big of her story. She applied for funding to get more money to support her six children and her husband two years ago. She was successibly able to sell the chickens last year and raise about $125 (a significant amount over here) to buy food for her children, to send a few of them to school, and to buy supplies to make an addition onto her house. The lady was extremely friendly, as were her children. She even invited us to try durian–I took just a small bite but the fruit is not my favorite what-so-ever. We expressed our gratitude for letting us visit and it was great seeing the work of Solaid right before our own eyes!

Well, I’m off to bed as we have a busy day planned for tomorrow! Check back soon for many more updates here in Cambodia!

~Susan

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With all of the luggage in the tuk tuk

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Elderly woman with hut that Solaid built

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Temple

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Inside the temple

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Another Solaid family (the ones with the chickens)

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Learning how to use the computer!

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Living in Paradise (aka Phu Quoc Island)

We didn’t know a whole lot about Phu Quoc Island before we got here so we didn’t really know what to expect… I think it is fair to say that Phu Quoc Island far exceeded our expectations!! As I mentioned in my last post, we arrived to our resort mid-afternoon and immediately jumped into the warm water where we spent the rest of the afternoon until the sunset. The sunset was stunning—one of the prettiest I’ve ever seen!! By this point, I knew that we were in for a few wonderful days. The resort included a nice, hot breakfast (definitely a step up from the dry cereal that I’ve been eating) right next to the ocean. Our first full day was spent relaxing around the pool and the beach. We had a huge pool that overlooked the ocean all to ourselves… it was perfect! After spending all day in the sun however, I resembled more of a lobster than an American—the sun is incredibly intense on Phu Quoc! As the afternoon wore on and the temperature decreased slightly, Laura and I decided to teat ourselves to massages on the beach. An hour-long massage was an entire $5… it was perfection! We headed into town for dinner… a tourist trap compared to the other places we’ve been in Vietnam. Rather than paying $1 or $2 for dinner, the prices here were about $5. It felt like we were breaking the bank for dinner but everything is certainly relative as we got a nice Indian dinner for only $5… I suppose it isn’t too bad of a deal in the grand scheme of things! Our final full day on Phu Quoc was spent on a tour of the island. Our first stop was at the Australian Pearl Factory, not far from our resort. We got to see how the pearls are collected from the oysters. The color of the oyster shell determines the color of the pearl. The oysters stay in the ocean for 3-7 years, which allows the pearl to grow. Then they simply slice out the pearl and it is ready to go! After we saw the demonstration, we went into the shop where they had pearl necklaces, pearl earrings, and pearl everything! The place was packed with people but the redeeming factor is that the place was air conditioned (a wonderful feeling in 100 degree heat)! Afterwards, we got dropped off at the coconut tree prison—an American/Southern Vietnamese prison for the Northern communists. They used extremely harsh forms of punishment that made me extremely uncomfortable. For instance, one of the forms of punishment included putting the prisoners into “tiger cages”—a small cage made of barbwire… so small that the prisoners couldn’t even move. It’s crazy to think that all of this occurred just a few decades ago. We walked through many prison cells that depicted what life in the prison was like. After the prison, we drove across the street to the fish factory and saw the big barrels where they make the fish sauce… it smelled horrid (especially to an individual who isn’t a fan of fish in the first place)! There were lots of fish stores surrounding the fish sauce factory but as others looked around at the fish, I was recuperating in the air conditioning… I will never take air conditioning or cool weather for granted again after our experience here in Vietnam where we are typically covered in sweat all day! Then we moved onto Sao beach for lunch and some time to enjoy the beautiful beach. Unfortunately we weren’t so lucky and as we just finished lunch, it down-poured… we’re talking monsoon-like weather. We were unsure of the status of the rest of our tour but fortunately when we arrived at the fishing village (our next stop on the tour), it was dry! There was a ton of seafood available for purchase—some prepared and some still alive. It broke my heart to see little seahorses for sale. They also had sharks for sale… definitely not my cup of tea! Then we were off to Wallter Falls, a beautiful waterfall on the island. We hiked up to the waterfall and when we got to the top, we unanimously agreed that would suffice as our workout for the day!! Next we were off to the sim wine factory where we got to see the sim flower/berry that they make the wine out of. We also saw where the wine was fermented and we got to try a few samples of both juice and wine!! Our last stop was at a pepper farm where we saw pepper growing from the trees. It grows in green pods before the pepper is taken our and ground up. We also saw some durian fruit… a great fruit to look at but once cut open, it’s one of the most horrid smells ever… just trust me on this one! Fortunately these durians were still attached to the tree! We were all exhausted when we got back so we had a little time to relax before enjoying dinner on the beach while watching the sunset. Once again, the sunset was spectacular! We all really enjoyed our time on the beautiful island of Phu Quoc and we would love to stay longer… but Cambodia is calling!! Tomorrow we are taking a ferry back to Vietnam and then crossing over into Cambodia. Despite Cambodia only being about 6 miles from Phu Quoc, there is a lot of tension at the border between Phu Quoc and Cambodia… and it was strongly recommended that we head back to Vietnam mainland and then head to Cambodia… so that is exactly what we are doing! We will travel to Kampot, Cambodia where we will spend about two weeks working with a doctor, who has a Creighton connection, doing basic primary care work and setting up mobile clinics. We will surely be in for an experience!

Wishing you all the best!
~Susan

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Pool in Phu Quoc

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Pearl

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Durian Fruit

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Phu Quoc!

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