Thursday, July 31, 2014


I'd like to dedicate this to fellow travelers and PCVs/RPCVs around the world.  Any toilet (or tree) will do, but if it's a Western style flush toilet in a clean, private bathroom, there is no better feeling.

A Few Days in Siem Reap and Angkor

Downtown Siem Reap.  Quick, how many Cambodians can you see in this photo?  1, waiting in his tuktuk to give the tourists a ride.
This vacation has been good and relaxing so far but I've felt a bit off center the whole time.  I've been trying to figure out why.  It started well, with an easy, short (50 min.) flight from Bangkok.  Visa on arrival was also easy and there was a nice guy with my name on a sign waiting to take me to my hotel.

Siem Reap was prettier than I expected - greener and lusher than Mandalay for sure.  The town is also smaller than I expected.  It seems to be comprised primarily of hotels, restaurants, banks and stores for souvenirs.

Check in at the Bayon Boutique hotel was easy and the staff very friendly.  We arranged for me to get a massage in my room an hour after I arrived.  Perfect.

Then my stomach started gurgling.  I've been having issues off and on for the last couple of weeks.  I have kept trying to blame it on nerves, diet, etc. but it is keeps up will have to assume it's giardia or some other type of bug.

Even with the gurgling belly, I was excited about the massage.   The massage therapist arrived an hour late, but who cares? It went well for a bit.  Then there was a knock at the door.  One of the hotel staff.  A few minutes later, as I was getting back in the relaxation zone, there was another knock at the door.  I appreciate that they were trying to be helpful but they'd booked the damn massage in my room for me.  Ten minutes later, my phone rang.  I answered, there was no one there.  Five minutes later, it rang again.  And again, it was someone from the front desk.  A few minutes later, the massage therapist stopped massaging and started packing up her stuff.  What?  We were 1 hr. and 15 minutes into a 2 1/2 hr. massage.  Seems there was a miscommunication.  She didn't speak English, the guy at the front desk couldn't help because he'd just come on duty and didn't know what was happening, so I called it a day.

That night, I was up every 15 minutes trying a new weight loss program.  Damn.  I wasn't really feeling like goig to a cooking class but had really been looking forward to it.  I really did enjoy the class, although had a fever by then and was feeling very puny.  Luckily, they found a chair for me and I did a combo of cooking and sitting.

I spent the afternoon meditating in the toilet and napping in between.  On Wednesday, I'd booked a guide and tuktuk driver to head to Angkor.  I was feeling better, although still shaky.  I'd eaten virtually nothing for two days.

The day was overcast and more humid than hot.  The temples were larger and more spectacular than I'd expected but I was disappointed at the hordes of tourists.  My favorite times were when we just sat on the large, fallen stones and I pretended there weren't tour groups and tried to imagine what it was like 1,000 years ago.  My tour guide was informative and had a good sense of humor.

I spent the evening in my hotel room, Skyping, 'net surfing and watching tv.  I also enjoyed a long, hot bath and a good book.

On Thursday, I spent the morning with the same guide and driver.  We drove around town, went to the Old Market, which stocked items imported from China and India and readily available for less money in Bangkok and I quickly tired of somewhat aggressive sales ladies.  Friendly, but not inclined to take no for answer until I'd said it for the 10th time and hadn't slowed my pace.

We headed along the Siem Reap river out of town and I felt a bit more optimistic.  Every thing looked "same same but different".  Architectural styles are similar to Thailand and Myanmar but not exactly.  The same for shops and tea shops.
We'd headed out of town to place that sells ceramics.  You can also learn to throw pots from the charming owner.

Her daughter is on school vacation this week and loves to use the potter's wheel to make her own stuff.

The owner made some beautiful stuff.  I especially loved one elephant pitcher but was afraid it wouldn't make all the travel to get back to the USA with me.

When we headed back into town my guide and driver seemed a bit flummoxed about what to do with me.  I didn't want to spend my time buying souvenirs or checking out high end hotels.  I was feeling very jaded and thinking that perhaps my sense of curiosity and adventure have begun to wane.  I haven't really explored SE Asia that much.  Even so, was my attitude too "been there, done that"? Perhaps.

I had my tour guide friends drop me off in the center of town and started wandering around on my own.  I perked up when I got to the part of the market where the locals shop.  No one was trying to wrap me up in a "hand made" silk scarf or insist I admire their genuine rubies.  It was just Cambodian people selling stuff to other Cambodian people.  It made me smile.
Not a single one of these hardworking vendors cared where I was from or tried to sell me anything.  It was lunchtime and they were taking care of business.

When I stepped out of the market, back onto the street, I was back in tourist land and that's when it hit me.  I was feeling off kilter because Siem Reap and even Angkor, to some extent, had a bit of an Orlando feel.  Tourists and everything created to make them happy.  Restaurants selling Italian, Chinese, Mexican, French, Swedish, Japanese and other cuisines.  With an occasional Khmer restaurant tossed in, but a sanitized "tourist" version.

I'm not knocking it and don't mean to sound like I'm above a good tourist experience.  And Siem Reap is that.  Once I realized what was bothering me I decided to go with the flow.  I said "No, thank you." politely to a dozen tuk tuk drivers as I walked a block to find a massage place.  I left the heat and humidity outside and sank into a comfy chair for a 2 hour massage in a blissfully cold room.

When I finished I strolled across the street to Viva, a Mexican restaurant.  I got take out and then smiled at a tuk tuk driver who came running.  He'd never heard of my hotel but gave it a game effort trying to find it.  We both kept apologizing that neither of us knew exactly where it was.  We stopped several times for directions.  We were laughing out loud by then and I assured him I was having a great time, exploring the small roads with him.  We made it to the hotel and said goodbye.

My brief time here gave me an insight into why I love Mandalay.  It doesn't have a Hard Rock.  Transportation is expensive and hard to find.  People look at me as a novelty, not just another damn tourist.  The main tourist sites are pagodas and monasteries rather than shops set up by NGOs to help support locals.  It gave me a glimpse of what places like Bagan and Inle Lake in Myanmar may like in a few years.  I'm glad I'm there now.

Postscript:  This post isn't meant to discourage you from visiting Siem Reap.  People were friendly and there are great hotels and amenities to make it a "low culture shock" vacation.  Hopefully, UNESCO and the Cambodian government will continue to keep water parks and other tourist stuff from encroaching on the wonders of Angkor.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Now at 68 Countries

I'm happy to be in my 68th country, although right now, I'm pooped.  I'll be adding a lot more photos tomorrow of this beautiful place, Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Here are just a few...
Dinner when I arrived in Bangkok?  Oysters, smoked salmon, salad and garlic toast from Gourmet Market.  Deelicious!

Cooking class in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

First course, green mango salad.  Delicious but because I'd started having belly issues the night before, I only had a small taste of everything.

Fish amok - Cambodia's national dish.  Sort of a curry, made with turmeric and coconut cream.  A winner.

Dessert was rice flour mixed with water and formed into balls, with a piece of jaggery in the center.  Not sure I'd make it again.

We visited a local house in the village where the cooking class was.  This is their kitchen.  Looks VERY much like a Samoan uma kuka!

Angkor wat.  Just one of the many temples, buidlings in the huge Angkor complex.

Me, standing in the passageway that the king who built Angkor Wat used.  The passage for commoners is in the background.  Over 1,000 years old.

Love the look.  Local kids.

Angkor Thom.

My transport.  Few things make me happier than a day spent riding around in a tuk tuk.

Icy cold niu or whatever they call a young coconut in Cambodia.

Looks like a root waterfall.  This tree is over 300 years old.

Just one of the myriad of carving in the sandstone temples.

The temples are large.

Can you feel the humidity?

A well deserved lunch from Viva Cafe, back in Siem Reap.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Riots Continue

After school on Friday, I took a taxi to stock up on some supplies.  The driver was one I know well and trust.  As we drove off from school I experienced a moment of panic.  About a mile from the school, on a main road I saw many cars and lots of people.  A large group suddenly ran across the road.  It took me a second to realize it wasn't a mob but a group of parents taking their children from the government school.  Clearly, the information we'd been given that all schools were closed was incorrect.

We went first to the outdoor Chinese market.  It was business as usual.  One lady pointed at me and said "Laday", which means beautiful.  I gave the symbol for "no" and pointed at myself, then pointed at her and said "Laday".  All the vendors nearby laughed and kept pointing at me, saying "Laday".  That never happens at Publix.

Our next stop was to be Ocean, the grocery store, to buy flour.  I'm baking cookies with the kids next week and needed supplies.  But as we approached, it was clear that things were not normal.  There were groups of employees standing on the sidewalk, other people milling about.  My driver, having been on his cellphone, informed me that every thing was closed.

We drove off, toward the school and it was eerie.  Men stood around.  Women seemed intent on getting away and I saw a few women walking quickly down the street, sobbing.  There was clearly tension in the air.

We stopped at a small store near the other outdoor market and I was able to buy flour.  $3 for about 20 lbs.  There, the mood was calm and everyone seemed comfortable.

When I got back to school, the principal was talking with a group of teachers at our apartment building. He'd gotten a call from a staff member who lives near the Muslim area.  She told him that they'd just had the funeral for the Buddhist man who'd been killed on Tuesday night.  They'd paraded his body through the streets, which had increased emotions and tensions.  That is why the owners of Diamond Plaza/Ocean and other stores in the are had decided to close.  There were fears of increased violence.

I'm safe in the school compound.  I know that traffic was very limited last night and this morning, even on the main road that I can see from my window.  Internet is limited (normal) so I don't have access to news.  I'm planning to stay on the compound for the weekend and anticipate no problems.  I hope and pray that things calm down in the city.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Rioting Continues

Last evening a member of the admin staff came to my apartment to tell me that I couldn't leave the compound because of a government-imposed curfew.  She had no other news.  I found out this morning that the principal came to the apartments and gave an update on the situation to staff members who were hanging around but those who didn't happen to be there were left in the dark.

The curfew is an effort to stop the riots which have become a nightly event, with large mobs on motorbikes riding through the streets, singing the national anthem and targeting homes, businesses and religious sites of the minority Muslim community.

As far as I know, AIS is the only school which opted to remain open.  My class is all present and other than the kids talking about the situation before school, it's business as usual.  The field trip, which I'd just rescheduled for next week has been cancelled.  I'm not telling the kids yet, though, in the hope that the situation will clear up and we can still go.

The school has opted to shut down the internet for the entire weekend for maintenance which means I'll have no source of news and won't be able to communicate.  Since we frequently don't have internet, that's nothing new.

This is the first time that this type of violence against Muslims has happened on this scale in Mandalay.  The violence has been going on for over two years but mostly centered in the western Rakhine State. 

On the bright side, I feel safe but will not be visiting the monastery to take the new pencils I bought for the orphans who live there.  While it is unlikely that there will be violence there, I'm not willing to risk it.  I'm going shopping right after work to make sure I've got enough food/baking supplies so just in case things get worse I'll be set.  For me personally, I think the greatest danger is I'll just be holed up in my apartment, baking and eating too many cookies and brownies.  It could be worse.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Violence in Mandalay

I got to school early today, ready to head out on our field trip.  Basically, a road trip with Flat Stanley to photograph him at a variety of sites around Mandalay.  The kids were pumped and had worked in teams of two to prepare posters.  In English, they described the location and why Flat Stanley would enjoy it.  Even more challenging, they did it from the voice of Flat Stanley, in the past tense.  Not easy stuff for first graders working in their second or third language.

One of my kids arrived early and asked about the "city problems" that she'd overheard her mommy talking about.  I immediately emailed my boss and the local woman in admin.  We started piecing news together.  It seems that in the middle of the night on Tuesday night, July 1, over 300 people stormed a Muslim neighborhood.  A car was either set on fire or it was a car bomb.  People were threatened with knives, sticks and machetes.  I heard directly from a local friend who lives a few houses from where the car bombing happened.

After more information and much discussion we decided to postpone the field trip.  By 9:00 a.m., Mandalay time, the Myanmar army had closed roads around the affected area.

The kids were very disappointed and I told them we'd postponed because I was afraid it would rain and that because FS was made of paper he would lose his head, arms, legs, etc.  They thought that was funny and wanted to protect their Flat Stanley's.  So, disappointed, I offered them options for the first period.  They chose Math Bee, their favorite activity.  I made it even more special by allowing them to challenge one of the three teachers.  Teachers won, but it was close.

After recess, they got a surprise.  Dr. Gary, the principal had agreed to challenge each team.  He won, by a landslide.  I think they were intimidated.  He said he'd be happy to have a rematch any time.  I think they'll be ready next time.

After school, I took a taxi to a grocery store far from where the violence had happened.  I'd heard that Zeygo market was still closed down (owned by a Muslim) and the area blocked off.  I saw no signs of problems on the roads.  It was much like being in Bangkok during the coup - lots of reports but no sign of violence, problems.

Hopefully, things will be back to normal tomorrow.  Sadly, the Buddhist/Muslim issues that sparked this violence have deep roots.  It's not going to be resolved over night.  And, like most religious/ethnic conflicts, the people I spoke with today all abhor the violence and are appalled at what is happening.  That's the case in so many areas of the world today.  Why is it the extremists who are in control rather than the sensible majority?

I'm hoping that my first graders will be enjoying a Flat Stanley field trip next week and we won't have to worry about anything but which snack to buy at the bakery.