Be careful on arrival, as you might trip over a mall. This country, packed with high end shopping centers & fancy plazas, is a melting pot for successful foreign nationals, as well as a hub of cultural culinary—from Indonesian, Korean & Chinese to Indian, Malayan and more—the diverse dishes will demand a passport for your palate. My taste buds have done more traveling in this small country's borders than it's done around the bloc of Southeast Asia. But, the most unique thing about Singapore is their $1,000 fine for littering, which cleans up nicely. This country is immaculate. Not too mention, sparkling. And not just because it's shaped like a diamond.
This country has an inspiring upbringing, which was impressively cultivated by longtime, but recently deceased leader, Lee Kuan Yew. His passion, focus and intelligent utopian design fashioned his country with divine growth points, focusing on unity and fairness. Lee put strong attention towards national security, economic strength, anti-corruption measures, population control, corporal punishments and strong water resources. In fact, because of Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore ranks one of the highest countries in the world with regard to standard of living, education, healthcare and economic competitiveness. Under his leadership, Singapore transformed from third world to first world in one man's single lifetime.
As usual, Lisa and I showed up with a backpack full of dirty, smelly clothes (only to find out it costs $10 US for load) and four infected eyeballs—conjunctivitis—which we somehow acquired in Indonesia (watch those bedsheets, people). Arriving on a Sunday and a public holiday, we managed to find the only medical care clinic that was open in the heart of Little India and waited in an intensely long line with a swarm of Indian men. After being called in, the doctor quickly diagnosed us, then began some pleasant, amusing small talk. She told us that people in Singapore don’t take holidays—labor is the leisure. Anyone who flocks to Singapore comes for work and/or advanced study and they come to succeed. There are institutions from all over the world—America, Germany, United Kingdom and beyond—and everyone gets strait As. It’s healthy, wealthy and proud if it.
However, the downside from a backpacker's perspective, is it's incredibly high prices for everything from water to transportation to accommodation. It's tough to go from $5/dorm bed in every other southeast Asian country to $20. It causes mental gasps and financial fevers, especially if unrealized until arrival. Not to fret. There are plenty of ways to enjoy Singapore with a budget & the right attitude.
We somehow managed to couchsurf our way into a traditional Sudanese (ethnic group specific to the island of Java & predominantly Muslim) wedding. After collecting our traditional Basak wedding attire in Bandung, we hit the road towards Tasikmalaya (West Java ) only to arrive to the groom's home at 1am the night before the wedding. Naturally, they were already sleeping, so we decided to play Shithead in the street before being let into the house.
We woke up early (6am) to begin traditional procedure: Ginger tea, Soto soup for breakfast, and a family sarong adjustment session (very binding). The traditional Basak wedding attire is extremely colorful--bright yellows, greens, royal blues, fierce reds, etc. The traditional clothing for Sundanese women consists of a kebaya, a long-sleeved, fitted lace blouse that is worn over another layer of clothing, and a sarong. As well as a sarong, a length of decorative cloth that is wrapped around the waist and hangs down to the ankles, which makes for an extremely difficult bathroom experience. Men also wear a sarong, but instead of a kebaya, they wear a long-sleeved batik shirt or a fitted, embroidered jacket. Of late, these traditional dresses are being influenced by Western and Islamic styles--as in sexy, stylish & cool.
They adorn the wedding couple, car & venue with fragrant flowers such as jasmines as well as other cheerful garlands and hair adornments. Then, the line of wedding guest cars is led to the venue by "Polisi" and the whole village stands on the streets waving & smiling. It looked like a funeral brigade, but felt like a parade. When we arrived, we lined up on a red carpet to enter. As we watched to colorful crowd mingle, we were handed an array of wedding gifts for the bride to bring into the venue and watch over while we took our seats. The ceremony began at 9am sharp and for the next couple hours, there was a series of Sudanese songs, speeches & sermons delivered. During that time, I discovered the couple had actually been married one week before and this was just the celebration where extensive family & friends come to congratulate and take photos. The typical wedding will have 200-500 guests attend--this one had 1,000!
Eventually, the bride & groom moved to two chairs in the front center & sat as all the guests gathered to stand around them. After one more song, they begin the "saweran" (throwing coins, mixed with flower petals and candy for the unmarried guests to collect and believed to bring better luck in romance). A frenzy ensued & I wound up with two candies & one coin wrapped in plastic with a special note inside, which read #7. This was a door prize that won me a sweet tas (purse) fashionably fit for an 8-year-old girl, which is who I gave it to later.
Next, the bride & groom are summoned upon for "huap lingkung"(a tradition in which the bride and groom feed each other by hand, with arms entwined to symbolize love and affection). Then comes the "bakakak hayam" (when the bride and groom rip apart a grilled chicken through holding each of its leg; a traditional way to determine which one will have the most financial success, which is the one that get the larger or head part).
Then, we all stand again for a traditional Merak dance (peacock dance). This hilarious interpretive dance tells about the beauty of the male peacock which aims to attract the female peacock. Every movement of the dance is full of cheer and happiness, so this dance is used as a gift for the visitors or to welcome the groom to the altar in the wedding ceremony.
Finally, the wedding feast begins while the wedding couple prepares for five hours worth of photos with family & friends.
Picture yourself hammock hung, staring out at the Great Gulf, listening to the sound of perfectly emerald waves stroking the silky, chalk white sand with its tender tide. The breeze blows just brisk enough to make the heat of the day beyond bearable and the smell of the seductive sea tops off the relaxation with a zest of salty sweetness. Even better, there is no one around except the friends you came with.
We left the main mecca of Ko Rong, Cambodia’s second largest island, with one goal in mind—isolation. Our rickety fish boat was anchored two schooners away from the pier so we formed an assembly line to heave our bags, tents, water and food into the right vessel. While Lisa sat starboard and protected the food, Tomer settled at the stern to safeguard his guitar. That left me in charge of the bags, which became a damp task as water filled the beam—bags shuffled, eggs perished and sun scorched our water pebbled skin. We were dropped off at the right edge of Long Beach, roughly 150 meters from the coastline, forcing us to haul our camp gear to shore in waist deep water, survivor style. We bid our boatman farewell and began a long trek down Long Beach in search of the perfect campsite.
According to Tomer, this is one of the cleanest and most beautiful beaches he has ever been to. I’ll take his word for it considering he lives minutes from a beach in Israel and as done a lot more worldly beach hopping than me. I’ve spent the majority of my life in the mountains, or endless flat landscapes made up of farm fields and tumbleweeds. Any and every beach I’ve been to is unique and majestic, but my lifetime sample size of beach visits is far too small for a solid grade. This beach, for now, has the least pollution and human population I’ve ever seen. We finally setup camp in between two palmy pine trees with suddenly nothing better to do, but chill, snorkel, read, cook, treasure hunt, drink and more. As the sun fell closer to the sea’s horizon, it perked up in piercing pink and orange hues with a vibrant dash of marmalade—by far, the best place to see the sunset on the entire island. And that’s not the only thing that glows. Once the lights go out, the stars speckle like a disco ball, and the gleaming azure plankton comes out to dance. It's a truly magical experience.
Forgive the slang, but teaching English is seriously rad. I know I’ve been talking about doing this for a LONG time, but deep down, I’ve been wildly nervous that I would be a teaching failure—mostly because I’d never taught in a class room setting and the whole thought of it was a bit intimidating.
For those who don’t know how I feel about public speaking, picture yourself opening your front door and seeing a grizzly bear fresh from hibernation just chilling on your front porch. That’s the feeling I get when I’m summoned to speak in front of people. And for some reason, my amygdala just naturally put teaching and public speaking in the same fearful category. So, now let your imagination turn that grizzly bear into thirty little Cambodian cubs seated energetically in front of you. Will they bite? Perhaps. But no! They do the exact opposite. In fact, they sparkle! They are attentive, eager, amused and thrilled to have you there and listen to everything you might have to say, regardless of the language barrier, which is HUGE, by the way. And of course, being the extrovert gemini I am, I feed off this energy, which leaves me bouncing around the room in charade like fashion.
After day #1, I thought I might have a few students that were further beyond the rest. Turns out, the student I thought to be the most experienced in English, Chant La, who saved me in lesson #1, is just really quick at figuring out how to say what I want to hear. She listens well, repeats well and remembers. But in the end, if a student doesn’t understand, those other elements don’t quite matter. It certainly is a good starting point. So, even though week one flew by with flying colors (quite literally, as I taught them all the colors of the rainbow and beyond), it became quite clear that these kids really don’t know any English and I have to start from scratch. Now, that is a lot of pressure.
Another interesting element in my classroom is their full time teacher, Asak—a beautiful, sweet and well educated Cambodian that teaches them every subject but English six days a week. She has been helping me translate a lot of my instruction (as best she can), but I haven’t decided if this is a good or bad thing. For now, I like it because I think I would have trouble moving the lesson along without a little help. But for the future, the kids might use that translation as a crutch. Time will tell. I think Asak (who only knows a tiny bit of English), likes the English lessons as well.
Luckily, I have found a great resource online, ESLKidsStuff.com, which provides some incredibly simple, but effective lesson plans as well as class materials like flashcards, homework, downloadable songs, etc. Of course, no lesson plan could ever be set in ink, but it offers me a really good starting point. For instance, these students barely have access to basic clothes so doing an activity that requires anything with scissors, glue, tape and beyond is simply out of the question. Turns out, there is a lot you can pull of with chalk, markers, a simple ball and a jump rope.
They also really enjoyed when I brought my entire wardrobe to class (including a pair of men's underwear I stole from the hostel's lost and found) to go over clothing vocabulary.
Next week, we’ll get a bit more grammatical. Until then, see ya later! Oh yeah, and chime in with comments if you have ANY advice.
It’s been a long time since I’ve woken up before the sun. These days, I don’t even need an alarm clock since my neighbor’s baby is thoughtful enough to alarm me with her predawn hunger pains. Of course, her her mother dutifully responds by frying her up some asian form of bacon and since none of us have an actual kitchen, this happens on a portable cooker on the dining table directly outside my front door. Just as she lays her baby back to sleep, my other neighbor appears to begin a never ending supply of washing…with her hands. Then, a small village of builders arrive to continue banging on the five-story concrete structure directly next to my window. So, the sleeping ends.
But today, I could not have been more pleased with the commotion because for most of my life, I have never been more eager than for the first day of school. Only this time, I get to be the teacher. So, like any good Cambodian educator, I made sure to brush my hair (a rare occurrence), fill my bag full of half organized piles of paper and polish my helmet. Ready, set, throttle.
I didn’t realize it until I hit the road, but the school I work at is directly next to Banteay Srei, one of the most famous and beautiful temples of Angkor. This means I get to drive directly through the heart of Angkor at sunrise twice a week to teach kids english out in the Cambodian countryside. Basically, I could not have dreamt up a better experience.
I arrived by 8am, took a quick squat in the bushes then sauntered into the chaotic classroom to find a whirlwind of enthusiastic kids adorned in a dark blue bottom and white top uniform, as well as one teacher leading three different grades for a reason she could not quite explain. Maybe that’s how it always is…we shall see. Anyways, we set my schedule and I was to arrive back at 10am. Perfect. That gave me time to turn my jumbled mess of paperwork into a legit lesson plan, which I later thanked the Buddahs for.
This also gave me a chance to go meet the local family that lives directly next to the school who has offered me a space in their home two days a week. To be precise, I am staying in a hut with the school administrator—this includes jovial grandma, soldier husband, two older brothers, one younger brother, older sister, baby sister, a plethora of chickens of all ages (and chicks of all ages), two cats (plus kittens), a puppy named Lucky and a cow. At least, I think that’s everyone. And people, they are the definition of hospitable. They are some of the poorest people in the world, but have opened their door, their hearts, their smiles and their cooking pots to make me feel more welcome than I ever have in any home. And let me tell you, Grandma don’t care that I can’t speak Khmer—she’ll talk to me until the next eggs hatch and put a bear hug on top.
My lesson finally began with the classic name tag and greeting intro. Upon discovering the desks didn’t move, I tried to arrange the class in a circle by showing them how to sit on top of their desks. After the fourth desk I’d plopped on with the only reaction being a “she must be coo coo” stare, I forfeited the circle plan. I began to call out to students at random, desperately seeking educational success.
“What is your name?”
I bring my hands to my chest and say, “My name is Kori.”
……..giggles echo wildly……..
I place my name tag on my blouse and repeat, “My name is Kori and I am from America.”
I channel the power of persistance and try again. “What is your name?”
“My name is Chan Ji.”
“Yes! Very good! How are you Chan Ji?”
Chan Ji, you are better than fine. You are my very first break through. You are a 13-year-old lifesaver.
And Chan Ji appeared as hyped as I was at that moment. She basically stepped in as my teaching assistant by helping everyone remember what they were supposed to say, encouraging them to try if they were shy and helping me comprehend and spell names as they ranged anywhere from Neang to Tram to Lear, Phe and Bong. Then, everyone was stoked. We powered through numbers (1-20), sailed through rainbow vocabulary (aka. colors) and still fit in some hilarious games. No writing or grammar, but the participation was soaring.
I could not have asked for a better first day. Although I need some serious supplies to enhance the educational process (e.g.: color chalk, flashcards, homework assignments, etc), I think I am as grateful for the class as they are for me. There is nothing like some communal stoke, gratitude and 50 reps of the ABCs to make a brand new English teacher feel flitters of pride. More to come!
I live in a bedroom. Not a home or a condo, just a bedroom. It’s kind of like a homestead. Every time I open my door, I am greeted with a surplus of Cambodian family activity—naked children frolicking about, rice steaming next to unidentified meats grilling, motorbikes revving, chained up roosters hysterically cocking (and they all laugh at me every time I gingerly tread past him), dogs lounging, cats pouncing—it’s a culture stricken corridor and I love it.
Although at first arrival, this place was advertised like a full on luxurious flat.
To be precise, the sign read:
Fact: It is a very spacious room with a bathroom (underground water works occasionally).
False: everything else listed.
Perk (that should be listed): FREE BED!
Let’s be real. At $70 per month, a girl can make do with just about anything. Sam, my local Cambodian friend, brought me here because he knew I wanted something cheap in price, close in proximity and safe. Luckily, I got what I wanted in that scope. It’s a quick and amusing six minute bike ride from work (and only one minute from street side noodles) and it’s owned by a police officer (so I guess that means it’s safe safe).
My first roommate was Clive, a fist sized spider that spent most of his time in the bathroom or in my walk-in closet (which I presume that’s what the sign meant by kitchenette). He didn’t pay rent and we didn’t really get along, but I will always be grateful for Clive as he helped me bond with my local neighbor, Song. Although Song knows very little English, so I learned a bit of Khmer and then he knew exactly what I meant when I said bhing-bhang tom tom (translation: spider big big), handed him a broom and pointed to my bedroom. One roommate down.
Then, I hosted a new employee at the hostel while he searched for a place to reside—a Frenglish (french/english) man called Pierre. He was a lovely houseguest and even bought me a local painting of the floating village to jazz up the joint. I’ve yet to figure out how to hang it from the cream tinted, cement walls, but there is something endearingly quirky about it setting against the wall instead of hanging. It seems to represent my current life status a bit better—living simply and appreciating what I have for what it is and not what it could be. Then Pierre found another flat within a week’s time, further down the street, closer to the killer dogs. He now lives for the thrill of the late night stroll. That’s two roommates down.
Just recently, my walk-in closet was turned into a full on second bedroom with the addition of roommate #3. Now, I live with a beautiful, vibrant soul from Holland called Lisa. She’a like the human version of a flying unicorn…or a butterfly fresh form her cocoon. She is truly one of the happiest, most loving, caring, engaging people I have met thus far. She is the bartender at the hostel I work at and since we always have different days off, she decided to move in so we could get the ever so special roommate quality time. We have quickly bonded and morphed our little bedroom into the Cambodian Ladies Lounge.
The stories to follow will be more than worth telling (or not).
As I sit here in my new Cambodian flat, I can't help but reflect on 2014 as being one of the most directionless years of my life. After spending five years in a place I love, with people I adore and a job that was ever so rewarding, I suddenly felt trapped inside a box I could not easily remove myself from. I quit three jobs and moved three times. I felt professionally lost and financially powerless. I knew what I wanted, but didn’t know how to get it. I felt failure to expectations I could not define or even pinpoint their conception. I was restless, confused, discontent and temperamental. My spontaneous behavior had never been more desperate and clueless. Finally, I decided to reset my mantra and follow my heartstrings. My heartstrings, people. It’s like mediation with a pulse detector. My heart challenged me to seek more and pulled me into the direction I always wanted to go, but was letting other unnecessary events and pressures deter me from. That’s when I pulled the trigger, bought a one-way ticket to Bangkok and started saving like a motherfucker. Two months later, I was on a fast track through Southeast Asia—Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Luang Prabang, Veng Viang, Vientiene, 4,000 Islands, Pakse, Ho Chi Minh City, Dalat, Phu Quoc, Phnom Penh and currently, Siem Reap, Cambodia. Every stop has been a fast paced unplanned destination...until now. Cambodia grabbed me by the heartstrings and pulled me to a stop. In the last three months of fast paced backpacking, I’ve made some incredible friends, absorbed some powerful history and tapped into some serious self discoveries that have ignited a passion, intrigue and vigor in my daily life that I haven’t felt in a long time. It’s a token to travel, tenacity and true introspection that I find myself living in a country so damaged, but so resilient with people that live so simply, but so satisfied. I know have a lot to learn and explore here in the next six months and am grateful to call it home. Currently, working at a hostel five days a week and will be teaching English in the country side the other two days. Feel free to visit anytime ;) Choi Moi!
And I’m pretty sure his name was Tequila because Prancer, Vixen and Spiced Egg Nog were nowhere in sight. There is no doubt, I had a saucy Christmas Eve in Siem Reap. However, It wasn’t until the next morning while attempting to stand from the ground I slept on that I realized, vacation is over. Don’t worry, I’m not homeless. But I am sleeping in my hammock (which I clearly fell out of during the previous night) in a shed outside of the hostel I’ve been working at for about a week now (for free, I might add). That’s right, I found a job and it wasn’t as hard as one might think.
I signed up on WWOOF, which is essentially a work away type website that links volunteers with farmers around the world in exchange for food and accommodation. Alas, there were only six farms listed in the whole of Cambodia, so I emailed the one I saw in Siem Reap. The owner, Mark from England, emailed me back promptly to inform me that the volunteer positions at his farm were filled, but I should swing by his hostel where he has some work/volunteer opportunities. After a bit of Siem Reap sightseeing, I made my way to Downtown Siem Reap Hostel, to meet the owner and his local wife, Rina, in person. Mark went on to tell me that his farm spots weren’t full, but he didn’t feel comfortable sending a solo female volunteer to the farm since he is only out there 3-4 days out of the week and spends the rest of the time in town at his hostel. However, once he heard I have six months dedicated to living in Siem Reap, he immediately offered me a position at his hostel’s reception desk. The pay is minimal for the first month (appx. $2.50/hr, 60 hours/wk), but the more time you invest in him, the more he’ll invest in you. I’ll get paid more by the second month and if I stay for three months, they’ll cover my visa costs.
I work with mostly local Cambodians, but there are three other Westerners that work there as well. The bartender, Lisa from Holland, is a joyful dream. I truly don't think I have met a happier Hollander. She is the living, breathing definition of the word cheerful, even after she breaks two toes! There is also two jovial kiwis (aka. New Zealanders), Matt & Sam, who have been traveling Southeast Asia for over seven months, sporadically working at various hostels for the fun and the financial break. The boys will be gone in less than a month on their way to India, but Lisa and I will spend at least three months together, which is a comforting fact. The local I work with will be a whole separate post because it is one of my favorite aspects of the job.
On top of the job, Mark has already managed to find a me an English teaching job for two days a week out near his farm in rural Cambodia, which will start in January. They are working on finding me a place to sleep and a scooter to make the hour drive out to Kulan Mountain, which is where the school is located. They made sure I knew that this is extreme countryside and very poor Cambodia (eg. no electricity, pump your own water and the students, if they show up at all, may not even own their own shoes). All I could tell them was that this is the exact experience I was hoping for. Otherwise, I move into my own place in downtown Siem Reap on January 1st where I'll be paying a whopping $70/month for a room, which includes a bike, laundry, pool, kitchen and wi-fi. Local status, here I come.
Quite literally, I placed my feet into a tank, dozens of minnow-like fish scurried round to suckle away my dry bits, and I walked away feeling refreshed, healthy and scale free. What a tickly treat!
And, highly necessary after nine hours of nonstop land turbulence from Phnom Penh. My bus finally bounced into Siem Reap at roughly 10pm. After 15 minutes of playing hard-to-get, I finally gave in to the adorable, yet pestering tuk-tuk driver that was bound and determined to take me to my hostel (and probably to the moon and back if I asked him to). I was soon to discover just how aggressive the Siem Reap tuk-tuk drivers could be when I walked home a few nights later and (accidentally) slugged one in the face by means of fisted shield protection. We laughed…awkwardly.
As we bobbled down the road, I kept hearing “Xin Cháo” cat calls in my direction (which is rare in these Southeast Asian countries), but could not figure out why local Cambodians kept shouting “Hello” in Vietnamese…Ah! I soon realized I was still fully strapped into my Vietnamese conical hat (picture a lamp shade made with dried coconut water leaves). No wonder the bizarre shouting. I quickly unlaced the silk scarf from around my chin, removed the cone basket and suddenly heard cheers of joy. Got it. They don’t approve of Vietnam. Guess I won’t be wearing that to my next interview.
After weaving through the countless night markets and buzzing party streets, Lang eventually dropped me off at the brand new Luxury Concept Hostel ($6/night) equipped with a dapper rooftop bar, exquisite shower heads and a spacious floor plan (it’s the little things that count). I could not have been more pleased as I unpacked Sebastian and made myself at home. I met up with some old backpacking friends, Jake, Rich & Bobby, the next morning to do some casual sightseeing (mostly competing to see which one of us can bargain the best…Jake wins), followed by a Cambodian circus performance (see previous post), then the consumption of our first fried tarantulas (which led to a domino effect of food poisoning for all) and finally off to bed for a sunrise wake to the ever-so-magical temples of Angkor Wat.
Note to all: A one day visit to Angkor Wat is not suggested. Give yourself at least two days in this tantalizing temple land full of impressive history and stucco, sandstone delight.
After bidding the boys goodbye, I asked the bartender if he knew where I could take an entry level Khmer class. He instantly calls a friend who knows a friend, she immediately shows up at the bar and we arrange my first Khmer lesson. Her name is Bee and she hails from England. Bee has been living in Siem Reap for nearly six years working at www.conCERTcambodia.org, a NGO that helps turn people’s good volunteer intentions into the best possible help for the most vulnerable people in Cambodia. She also teaches English as a second job. She is also friends with a swarm of other beautiful expats, some I’ve met, that are doing all kinds of cool jobs in the area. To say I struck gold with this introduction would be an understatement. Due to the contagious energy, powerful history and job seeking potential of this city, I think I may have just found a potential home. So now, it’s time to start carving out a potential six-month career path in this wonderful little city. With Bee and friends at my side, let the job hunting begin.
Wait one minute! It can't be that easy. First, I must spend 24-hours with some crazy wave of food poison where I literally dispose of all my insides from every possible waterspout. Check, that happened. Luckily, I was blessed with some very compassionate dorm mates who delivered fresh papaya and electrolyte powder to my bedside until I was mobile again. Post recovery, I treated myself to a traditional Khmer massage, which felt more like Cirque du Soleil tryouts. Needless to say, I am still sore as a motherfucker, but happy as a girl who just got her feet suckled...again!