480 Steps of Death or Dance with an Elephant

Given the choice of the title, what would you choose? On the one hand 480 steps doesn’t sound so bad, but what if you had to carry 100 lbs or so, the steps are broken and uneven, it’s hot and humid, and did I mention how steep the climb is up this mountain staircase? Ok, so maybe the elephant; just remember this thing is about a thousand times bigger than you, it’s a wild animal, and dances to the Macarena. Given the added details it’s a difficult decision huh? Well, I’m just a glutton for punishment, so I chose  both.

This whole adventure started at a placed called Phnom Jeezo. This is closer to a real mountain, not like the hill they call a mountain in Phnom Penh. To give you an idea, at for those of you in Utah, if you have ever hiked the “Y” the stair case is a little bit longer than that, or maybe it just felt that way. Apparently whoever built the stairs didnt just think to put in an escalator instead and save us all the trouble, but oh well. So, we put Martina on my back and we went up…and up…and up. I made it well past halfway when our friend Ashley offerred to take Martina the rest of the way. However, we left her wheelchair at the bottom of the stairs, so I still had to piggyback her as we explored the top of the mountain. It was well worth all the effort.

At the top we had the opportunity to participate in some Buddhist ceremonies (incense burning and some fortune-telling thing) and walk around some ruins that are even older than Angkor Wat. I couldn’t help but feel a little like one of my adventure heros: Indiana Jones! It was great fun. The top of mountain was so tranquil, despite both tourist and local coming and going. The views of the countryside were incredible – it really brought Cambodia into a new light. Eventually, we made the long hike back down, which was much easier (I even carried Martina the whole way this time) and onto the next leg of our adventure.

Our next stop was a Cambodian zoo. Upon arrival children started to ask us to buy these little leaf wrapped sticky rice treats to feed to the monkeys walking around the zoo – these were wild monkeys, not zoo monkeys. We held out the little baskets and the monkeys would snatch them from our hands. As we strolled around we saw and fed sun bears, visited a shy tiger, some lions, and saw many caged monkeys. Throughout all of this, the children followed us, offering information and assistance, which would be so kind if they weren’t simply hoping for tips afterwards – but that is just how Cambodia works, a kid has to make a living after all.

Finally, we got to Lucky, our dancing elephant. At first it was caged and we were just snapping pics when the keepers told us for a small price they could make the elephant dance. We all chipped in and waited. They then brought the elephant our of the pen to where we were standing!! The trainer had him do a lot of things: sit, take a bow, play dead and then they turned on music and it started to dance. Yes, it did dance to the dreaded Macarena, but it looked happy. We danced a little with it, touched it, and took pictures with it. A part of me felt slightly guilty – assuming the elephants and other animals probably don’t get as good of treatment as our zoos – but this is Cambodia and I can’t impose my ideas on their society.

All-in-all it was a great trip. As a side note, Martina hadn’t been feeling wel last week, so I’m glad she was feeling better today and could come on the trip.

Royal Palace, monkeys, and a boat

We hit up the Royal Palace this past week. It’s only open during certain time, but fortunately it isn’t far from where we live. Royalty in Cambodia is similar to royalty in the UK: just there for show. The King really doesn’t have much influence or power beyond ceremonial powers, with no real legal authority. The current King, Sihatmony, is the same King who sat on the throne during the Vietnam War and Khmer Rouge period (quick history lesson: he wasn’t in Cambodia during the take over, he had been overthrown while out of the country and went to China rather than returning home).

If you find yourself in Phnom Penh, the Royal Palace is a nice place to visit. The buildings are quite ornate and the grounds are well-kept; it was hard to believe we were still in a developing nation, the juxtaposition of wealth and poverty was shocking. Our Cambodian tour guide even commented on the inequality stating, “While people outside are so poor, the Palace looks like this.” Within the Palace there are a number of statues, murals, and other relics of Cambodia – many of which show the scars of the tragic Khmer Rouge past.

Afterward, we went to Wat Phnom. Wat (temple) Phnom (mountain) was founded by a woman known as Lady Penh.  you’ve probably guessed by now that the capital city is named after this woman and this mountain (Cambodia is pretty flat, so this mountain is more of a hill, but it works here). The area surrounding the foot of the mountain has been turned into a park and is pretty nice.  Like most parks it has trees, walking paths and monkeys. Yes, real monkeys just chillin’ and doin’ their thing. There are also some guys with an elephant that will give you a short ride. Why we don’t have parks like this in the U.S. is still a mystery to me – probably something about safety or animal rights I’m sure. We didn’t get too close to the monkeys because we didn’t know if they would go crazy on us or not. We went to the top via a walking path and some stairs (Martina got a nice little piggy back courtesy of this little piggy). Atop the mountain we looked around the actual Wat and took in the view of the surrounding area.

How did we wrap up a day of royalty and mountain monkeys? On a boat for a sunset cruise of course! this may have been the highlight of the day. The river was much cooler than on land, there was music and karaoke, and tons of food – our country coordinator, Eng, really out did himself on this event. It was awesome! Eng also brought some students who are learning English as a special treat to them. All of the students receive an education through an organization Eng works for, which provides schooling to low-income communities (we’re talking below the bottom of the financial rung, even by Cambodian standards). Martina and I will actually start volunteering as English instructors in one of the schools sometime soon. It was wonderful to have the students with us and talk to them about their learning and their goals. As great as all the sightseeing is and the fun we have, it’s the people of Cambodia that make this place special.

We Get a Taste of Tragedy

Perhaps the most eye-opening weekend of my life. Think I’m being dramatic? Then you haven’t visited both Toul Sleng (Prison s-21) and the Killing Fields.

grounds at S-21

Admittedly I haven’t been to Auschwitz or any Holocaust museums, but I imagine the effect on a person is similar. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me offer a brief overview of Cambodia’s history for those of you unfamiliar with it – if you are familiar you can either skip ahead or you can read it to fact check me.

During the Vietnam War, neutral Cambodia was used by the Viet Cong as a way to get around US forces, but once the US got wind of this tactic they decided the answer was to drop bombs on Cambodia. This did little to stop the Ho Chi Minh trail and had the added side affect of enraging rural Cambodians against the US. This gave the Cambodian Communists (Khmer Rouge) the momentum they needed to gain support and eventually overthrow a US backed government. For the next few years, Cambodia was turned upside down and millions of people suffered.

skulls in the monument at Killing Fields

The Khmer Rouge entered the capital city, Phnom Penh, and forced all of its people to evacuate the city. The Khmer Rouge did away with everything that resembled Cambodia, claiming that if they went back to “Year Zero” and were more like their ancient ancestors – those who had build Angkor Wat – they would become great again.  But what was the cost?

Every person was forced to live in communal camps and spend their days laboring in the fields. They were given little to eat, little to drink, and little time to rest. Families were torn apart, never to see each other again. They lived in constant fear that they might be taken in the night, never to return. Those who were once friends couldn’t be trusted because they might be spies for the Khmer Rouge. Anything associated with the West was especially condemning; wearing glasses, being able to read English, or even being a doctor/lawyer could get you killed.

The whole country lived with this dark cloud over it for several years. In the end a whole country suffered, millions perished, and Cambodia’s future changed forever.

The places we visited are the places where those family members and friends were sent, never to be seen in this world again. Toul Sleng was originally a high school in Phnom Penh, but was turned into a prison to interrogate and torture the most guilty of offenders: innocent women, children, monks, or anyone else who might pose a threat. I won’t go into the details of their interrogation methods, but they must have been thought up in a lower realm of hell.

Like many of the prisoners of Toul Sleng we then went to the Killing Fields. These fields are essentially mass graves, and they’re located all over the country. We visited the largest one found just outside the capital. Here people would be told to dig a pit – for their own graves. The atrocities performed here are as horrific as those at Toul Sleng.

How could people do this to each other is beyond me. I stood there amazed at the destruction and disregard of human life. I saw into the hell that is war and hate. I could only imagine how it made Martina, and other Cambodians, feel to see the reality of their history up close and unadulterated. I will never forget this experience, and in some way, I hope writing about it helps to honor those who suffered.

Pitbull in Phnom Penh!?

No, I’m not refering to the type of dog, I’m referring to the hip-hop artist – who I had admittedly never even heard of until I came to Cambodia! Apparently he has a number of popular songs in the US, but here in Cambodia one song reigns supreme: You Know You Want Me. There’s even a Cambodian cover by Preab Sovath (a Cambodian pop artist). Kids who don’t know any English can sing the chorus of the song, and it plays everywhere! It’s so crazy the types of things that become popular in other countries.

He’s so popular in Cambodia he came to Phnom Penh to do a concert. Of course we had to go, or at least the other interns felt we should, and who am I to turn down an international superstar? Especially when the tickets are only $2!?! Technically you had to buy $2 worth of groceries from Lucky Market and give them the receipt. Thinking about it now, I should have gotten a ton of tickets and given them away, because while $2 isn’t a lot to me it’s a lot to other people – I’m sure  it would have brightened someone’s day.

We got there a little early, and the concert grounds were packed! Not just young adults and teenagers either, there were parents, grandparents, and children – this was a total family event. I doubt the same could be said of his concerts in the U.S.

Proof it happened

The opening bands were all Cambodian – no surprise – and I didn’t understand much at all, but it was still fun. After several bands, Pitbull finally came on – we stayed for a few songs and decided we’d had enough. Overall, it was a fun experience, and gave me a taste of the type of entertainment that Cambodians are interested in.

**Here’s an article on the Phnom Penh Post about the event here**

What to do?

I’m in a strange country, with unfamiliar people, unfamiliar surroundings, and unfamiliar everything – this is exciting!  But where to start?!?!

While there are a number of historical sites to see, we’ve been promised by our program that they will take us – and pay for us – so I don’t want to go and do any of those types of things. What does that leave me and my fellow interns? A few days meandering around the city, that’s what!

We’ve gone to some of the more touristy markets like the Night Market and the Russian Market. These places are definitely the souvenir shop headquarters of Phnom Penh. Everything from bootleg DVDs and electronics to knock-off name brand clothing and random Cambodian curios. The whole experience is so new and overwhelming. We even went to a mall in Phnom Penh, complete with air conditioning, fast food restaurants, and all the other Western characteristics of a mall. It was striking to me that everyone is in jeans and long sleeve shirts. I look like a stereotypical tourist: t-shirt, shorts, sandals, and a camera in hand (which I hold onto tightly) and I’m sweating buckets! The natives don’t even seemed bothered by the heat, or the fact that they have on twice as much clothing! I’ve heard from some people it all to avoid getting darker, but is the answer really that simple? I’m not so sure…

Besides shopping we’ve visited the riverside a few times and enjoyed the shops and restaurants there. The best part about the riverside is the breeze. It helps take the edge off the heat. There’s one area of the river, where, in the middle, there are a bunch of little shacks. Apparently, that’s where some Vietnamese people live; not by choice exactly, but I’m still trying to figure it all out.  Needless to say it is an interesting situation.

On a more jovial note, in the evenings along the riverside people get together and do group dance aerobics. It’s hilarious to watch old ladies and young kids dancing up a storm to modern Cambodian hits.

That’s what I’ve been up to lately. My internship will be officially starting in a few days and I’m still not sure what they’ll have me doing. Well, until next time, adventure on!

Bon Voyage

I still can’t believe that this is all really happening. I’m in the airport and I’m just waiting for my flight. Our fellow intern Krystian flew from SLC to LA to fly with us, so our lilttle band is now three. We’re going to CAMBODIA!!! What strange adventures await us there? What new trials and experiences will I have? Only time will tell. Oh, that’s our flight!

Several hours later…

Wish you were here!

Hong Kong Airport
Stepping off the plane it became very clear that I was in Asia: the humidity for one (though it isn’t too bad in the airport where it’s  air conditioned) and lots of Asian people for another (go figure). We were rushed from getting off the plane to our gate. Now when I say rushed, I mean like when a package needed to be there yesterday rushed. This was rather annoying for two reasons: first, we didn’t need to be at our gate for about six-and-a-half-hours!!! Second, we had wanted to go explore Hong Kong for a few hours before our flight, but no.  Instead we sat and ate, then we sat some more.

Several hours of sitting and waiting later…

Welcome!!

Phnom Penh Airport
Cambodia!!! Far away from anything familiar. Stepping off the plane it was hot and humid. Wanting to practice my Khmer I made the mistake of saying this outloud to Martina and some guy laughed! Come to find out the day we had arrived was one of the coolest days in the past week and a half or so. Go figure. Everything went pretty smoothly and the airport wasn’t busy at all. Martina’s wheelchair seemed to come as a surprise to the majority of the staff though as they forgot to get it until we asked them. But other than that little hiccup, everything was great.

Some friends from BYU, Joseph and Vy, were there to meet us at the airport (they weren’t there for the internship, but they were there for other school stuff, so it worked out great). They were there with a man named Eng Bunhouch, esentially the man BYU hires to be responsible for us while in Cambodia, and a personal friend of Joseph and Vy’s.  They greeted us with beautiful flower leis and we sat and talked for awhile in the Dairy Queen (yes, my first restuarnt in Cambodia was a Dairy Queen). Then Martina and I hopped into Eng’s air conditioned car (such a blessing) to meet our host families, while Krystian rode in a tuk-tuk to Joesph and Vy’s apartment.

**Author’s Note: I don’t have internet at home, so while I’ll try to keep you updated, my posts are likely to be catch up blogs from time-to-time**

Time To Go

Finishing this last semester has kept me pretty busy, so I haven’t really updated at all, but it’s here, the time is here! I seriously can’t believe it’s the 9th already. Martina and I  leave tomorrow. TOMORROW!!! I can’t believe it – did I mention that already? I still don’t have everything figured out either: visas, my online courses, and a bunch of other little things. Even though I’m super excited, (and I mean, who wouldn’t be?) I still feel like freaking out and wetting my pants. That may not sound much like a brave adventurer, but isn’t bravery about doing things we’re scared to do? I think it is. Being scared/nervous is part of any adventure; jumping into the unknown and giving it your best shot.

It hasn’t registered that I’m really leaving the country. I’m here in Fresno visiting with Martina’s family. It feels like Spring Break;  like I’ll just be going home tomorrow, but instead we’ll be heading to L.A.  It feels a little crazy, but it wouldn’t be an adventure without a little crazy!

On a side note, today is Mother’s day. I just want to publicly thank my mom, and all the other moms in my life, but especially mine. She is one of the greatest adventurers I know. She came to this country 20-some-odd years ago, almost on a whim. Yet, she’s toughed it out through all sorts of trials, and has experienced so much – it has been such a blessing to her. She is such an example to me and I love her very much. And in the big picture, without her I wouldn’t be doing any adventuring in the first place. Thanks mom!!!

So, to those of you I won’t be seeing for a few months: have a great summer, find an adventure of your own, and we’ll see you later!

P.S. Cambodia, here I come!!!