From March 2015

Cambodia Travel Journal: Part 1 of 4

I recently returned from Cambodia where Bob has been involved with philanthropic projects for over 10 years. In addition to wanting to see his work there, I was curious about life in southeast Asia and what better time to head for the tropics than when it’s February in Chicago?

Of course, getting out of Chicago in February was easier said than done.

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So he did, and after a minor delay, the plane took off. 24+ hours later (with Bob having joined me when I changed planes in Seoul), we arrived in Phnom Penh in the middle of a dark and balmy night.

I woke up the next morning, eager for Bob to show me around the city. We hired a tuk-tuk and set out.

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This was my introduction to the chaos that is traffic all over Cambodia. Traffic lights are rare and cars, trucks, motos (motorcycles), tuk-tuks, bicycles and pedestrians just get on the road and go. There is a wide range of acceptable road behavior and if you navigate in the customary way, you seem to do okay.

A pedestrian’s lot is dicier. There are sidewalks, but they are not for pedestrians.

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Pedestrians are forced into the street to walk alongside traffic. Crossing the street is a more terrifying leap of faith.

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Eventually you get the hang of it, but you are constantly aware of the risk.

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Like all the other new aspects of this culture, I thought I was starting to adjust.

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Cambodia Travel Journal: Part 2 of 4

After a couple of days in Phnom Penh visiting hospitals, NGOs (Non Governmental Organizations) and doing a little touring, it was time to meet up with Rith, Bob’s interpreter and point man in Cambodia and head out to the villages. Bob provides moto rides to the health center for sick villagers in three villages in Kampong Thom province. Our plan was to visit the villages over two days with an overnight stay in Kampong Thom city.

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I quickly booked “Sambor Village, #1 of 4 hotels in Kampong Thom!” When the best hotel in town is $55 per night, there is no sense confirming your worst suspicions by reading the negative reviews. I was already concerned about bugs of the tropical variety and was determined not to go “looking for trouble.”

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Bob and I regrouped in the parking lot and started to walk the line of vendors. I understand that bugs are part of the diet in many cultures and have seen street vendors selling them around the world. This lineup, however, seemed gratuitous. The bugs were revolting and the tourists squealing and sampling the things felt like being forced to watch a rerun of “Fear Factor”.

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Part 2 Row 4Part 2 Row 5Off we went to Lvea Chum. The villagers gather for a meeting whenever Bob visits. Through Rith, Bob asks how the moto drivers are doing, how the health of the village is and other questions about life in the village.

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Part 2 Row 7The people love the moto drivers, men who live in the village and whom they elect to the job of being on demand to take them to the health center. They are very grateful to Bob for this program. In addition to sparing a sick villager a several mile walk to seek treatment, the easier access allows people to get help before their conditions worsen. Pregnant women go for regular prenatal check-ups and more babies are born at facilities where they can get immediate attention if they are struggling.

The meeting ended with K-Ron, the village chief, thanking Bob and the villagers applauding. Afterwards, K-Ron invited us to check out his crops and the irrigation pond Bob donated in a field several kilometers away.

The moto drivers were ready.

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I could feel how careful the moto driver was being. He avoided potholes and sought out the smoothest path. He didn’t speed. Riding with him down the dusty, orange village road was a joy. And, best of all, he didn’t say a word.

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Cambodia Travel Journal: Part 3 of 4

I was silent on our ride back to the hotel. Bob went for a swim while I was intensely focused on reading the digital version of the Chicago Tribune on my tablet.

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In that moment, I realized I had what you’d call “culture shock”. I was still so preoccupied with processing the previous days’ experiences that my ability to absorb new ones was shrinking. It made sense that I was growing irritated with people talking. I didn’t want any more input.

Pie Chart of Preoccupation by Day:

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The Trib was easy and familiar and demanded nothing of my diminished coping reserves.

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Cambodia Travel Journal: Part 4 of 4

Cambodia is rich in unique travel experiences. We took in many of them as we made our way across the country.

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Though the economy is growing at 5% yearly, Cambodia is still struggling to survive from decades of war and the genocide by the Khmer Rouge in which 20% of the population died. Today 50% of the government’s budget comes from donor assistance. The government is corrupt and health care and education are poor.

Cambodia is second only to Rwanda in number of NGOs per capita. Bob and I saw and visited many of these efforts. It was humbling to see charitable hospitals and clinics staffed and led by bright and selfless Americans who live in Cambodia, often with their spouse and children. They seem surprised when I ask why they are here. Saving lives, reducing suffering and delivering desperately needed medical care must be rewarding, but still….

Next time I curse when TIVO doesn’t record a new episode of “The Good Wife”, I’ll have a lot to think about.