Water Festival in Bangkok

19 04 2013

The last stop of our trip was Bangkok, which mostly served as a way to break up the travel from southern Thailand back to Cambodia. However, the timing of our overnight in the capital made it one of the most memorable experiences of the entire trip. You see, earlier this week both Thailand and Cambodia celebrated the new year. In Thailand, they refer to the holiday as Water Festival (or Songkran), whereas in Cambodia it is simply called Khmer New Year. In both countries, the holiday officially lasts for three days, with celebrations spilling over for most of the month of April. It is the most anticipated time of the year, much like Christmas for many Americans.

In Cambodia, the new year is marked with relaxed afternoons spent with family in the countryside, drinking beer with buddies, and playing traditional games at the wat. The overall feeling during these three days is happy, but relaxed. In Thailand, however,  the vibe is anything but relaxed. Water Festival is an all-on party, where the tradition is to soak anybody and everybody with water and cover them in a floury paste.

Celebrating Water Festival in Silom (not my picture)

Celebrating Water Festival in Silom (not my picture)

We had been told that Bangkok would be empty during this time because most people would return to their families’ homes in the countryside. Bangkok, we were told, is not known for its songrkan festivities. So we booked a room in the same guesthouse we had stayed in two weeks earlier and prepared ourselves for a quiet day of catching up on emails, reading, and wandering around the neighborhood where we were staying, Silom. Much to our surprise, we found out that Silom is one of the two main centers for Water Festival activities. When we left our guesthouse in search of a late lunch, we were greeted with huge crowds of people, many of them children or college age, armed with buckets of water, super soakers, hoses, coolers of ice, and flour paste. We walked a few blocks to the restaurant, and by the time we arrived we were soaked.

Fallen prey to the festival antics

Fallen prey to the festival antics

The part went well into the night

The party went well into the night

After shivering in the air conditioned restaurant for a half an hour, eating our last Thai meal, we decided to brave the crowds and head back to the guesthouse. As soon as we stepped outside though, it was obvious that the party was just getting started. The crowds we had seen 30 minutes earlier had multiplied in size, making it nearly impossible to move anywhere. The streets were packed, the sidewalks were packed, the Skytrain entrance was packed. We could barely move, leaving us vulnerable once again to the ice cold buckets of water being playfully tossed by nearly everyone around us.

It took us hours to get back to the guesthouse, which was about an 8 minute walk on a normal day. There were moments of pure joy and amazement as we watched what seemed like hundreds of thousands of people all celebrating together, strangers laughing together as they covered each other’s faces in paste. There were also moments of frustration and panic, as we were caught in a massive mob, physically unable to move, cold and cramped. Overall, though,  it was a truly unforgettable experience, accidentally getting caught in the middle of it all, just thinking we were going out to grab a bite to eat. It was a great way to end our Thailand vacation. Now, we’re back in Cambodia ready to get back to life as usual.

Katie

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Koh Lanta

17 04 2013

After Chiang Mai, we hopped on a plane and headed to Phuket, Thailand’s best-known international resort town, for a quick overnight. Then, we boarded a boat for our final destination: Koh Lanta, a small island located three hours from the pier.

The boat we took to get to the island was filled with a strange combination of people. There were the usual suspects of course: bikini-clad tourists, foul smelling backpackers with dreads, twenty-somethings searching for themselves. However, there were others too, including young European parents with their small children, nearly a dozen Thai monks dressed in orange robes, local Muslim men and women trying to convince you to take a certain taxi or stay in a particular hotel. It was an unusual combination of travelers indeed, and a decent representation of what we would find on the island.

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We got to Lanta in the late afternoon, the sky overcast and threatening to rain. The island was surrounding by beautiful, rocky cliffs jutting out of the ocean, but Lanta itself was covered in dense, green vegetation. On the way to our bungalow, I was struck by the juxtaposition of the female tuk tuk drivers wearing hijabs who were transporting shirtless surfer types to bars with signs advertising shroom shakes or inviting you to “smoke here.”

Our bungalow was nice enough, the main draw being that it was located directly on the beach. As we found out, the adjacent restaurant featured overpriced, bland versions of Thai dishes that were typical of the island. There were a couple of cafes nearby that served up delicious muesli and homemade yogurt, but this was clearly not the place to get authentic tom yam or green curry.

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We spent three nights on the island, sunbathing and swimming whenever the weather would allow. In a given day it might have rained on two or three occasions, but there were always patches of sunshine that were perfect for relaxing. The beach had beautiful golden sand, with coral and rocks that were exposed during low tide.

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The only day that we strayed far from our bungalow was the second, when we decided to explore the island on bike. We made our way up and down the hilly terrain, stopping to admire the different beaches and viewpoints along the way. We eventually found ourselves in “Old Town,” which had a strip of restaurants aimed at tourists, decorated with Chinese lanterns. As we rode back, we got drenched in a downpour, but by the time we arrived at our bungalow the sun was shining again, inviting us out for another swim.

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We left Lanta happy to have made the trek to Thailand’s southern beaches. While in the south, we also stopped briefly in the town of Krabi, where we refueled on street food at an expansive marketplace before going on a great half-day kayaking tour through mangroves, karsts, and abandoned caves. Our vacation was almost over, but we were still looking forward to returning to Bangkok for Thailand’s biggest holiday: Water Festival.

Katie





Happy Chinese New Year!

11 02 2013

This weekend marked Chinese New Year, which is celebrated by some in Cambodia, although it’s not an official holiday. Usually Cambodians with Chinese ancestry will throw a small party both to ring in the new year and to pray for their deceased relatives. In the process, they offer gifts for the ancestors through burning items such as fake money, fake gold pieces, cloth, and other symbols of necessary goods for the afterlife.

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Burning money

We spent the day with my coteacher’s family for the second year in a row. Chanthou and his wife, Kunthea, are always so welcoming and Saturday was no different. We had a great time talking with Kunthea’s father who loves to tell us stories from the 1940s and 50s. They are always well thought out stories blending history with mysticism. For example, when the Khmer militia was fighting Thai forces in our area, he saw many forest people who were born without elbows and knees. It’s great to learn about a time other than the Khmer Rouge and it’s great Khmer language practice for us to listen intently to stories that seamlessly mesh Khmer history and politics with mermaids and dragons.

The great storyteller

The great storyteller

With Chinese New Year over, we only have one more New Year to celebrate before ending our Peace Corps service. Our sixth and final new year in Cambodia will be Khmer New Year in April. With three weeks off from school, parties at the wat, and a huge migration of people from the cities to their hometowns, Khmer New Year is the biggest and most important holiday in Cambodia.  (More on that later.)

-Tim





Happy 2013!

1 01 2013

Happy new year! I’m glad to report that Tim and I rung in 2013 in style. Even though we’ve had a few vacations in the past several months, we decided to splurge on a relaxing couple of days all to ourselves. We treated ourselves to a poolside hotel room, a 5-course dinner, and a hot air balloon ride over Angkor Wat.

We spent three days poolside, sipping mojitos and cooling off in the water. Inside the room, we  set the A/C so high we were shivering, just to make the high pressure, hot shower even more enjoyable. (The simple pleasures!) I got a professional massage at the hotel. We each splurged on some new clothes. We ordered in food – mostly different things filled with cheese. We streamed countless hours of Top Chef and opened a care package from home. In short, it was Peace Corps heaven, a much needed break from bucket showers, non-flushing toilets, and endlessly dusty air.

Poolside lounging

Poolside lounging

View of Angkor Wat from the balloon

View of Angkor Wat from the balloon

Sitting down for dinner on New Year's Eve

Sitting down for dinner on New Year’s Eve

It was absolutely the perfect start to what will undoubtedly be an exciting year. I have no idea what to expect from 2013, but I sure am looking forward to it! You can find more pictures of our luxurious weekend here.

Katie





Celebrating the Highlights of 2012

31 12 2012

This year was the first full calendar year that I’ve spent outside of the US, so it comes as no surprise that there is much to celebrate about 2012.

January: In a Phnom Penh deli with AM

January: In a Phnom Penh deli with AM

A Special Visitor

The year started off with a visit from one of my dearest friends from home: Anne Marie. We spent a week or so hitting the major Cambodian cities, but the best part of all was definitely just spending time with her. It was a great start to what ended up being an equally great year.

April: Hanging out on Halong Bay

April: Hanging out on Halong Bay

Trip to Vietnam

During Khmer New Year in April, Tim and I headed off to Vietnam for three weeks of vacation. We made our way from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi, stopping along the way to see the hills of Dalat, the beaches of Nha Trang, the colonial architecture of Hoi An, and the caves of Dong Hoi.

September: Tim's hospitality students at a hotel in Siem Reap

July: Tim begins working on his hospitality project with this great group of young people

Hospitality Training Begins

With the support of a local NGO and all of you, Tim began managing an intensive hospitality training program for disadvantaged youth in the community. It was the perfect opportunity to combine Tim’s interest in cooking, available NGO resources and a expressed need in the community.

July: The current group of volunteers welcomes the newbies at the airport

July: The current group of volunteers welcomes the newbies at the airport

Welcoming the K6s

A milestone for those of us who had reached the one year mark, welcoming the new group of volunteers to Cambodia reminded us all of how much we had learned and how far we had come since arriving the year before.

August: Teaching project volunteers about childhood nutrition

August: Teaching project volunteers about childhood nutrition

Understanding and Embracing my Role

In August, my project work took off, helping me to see the results of all the hard work I had put in during the first year of service. In the course of a month, I took the girls from my health club to Camp GLOW in Siem Reap, I helped organize and lead a training that would kick off a childhood nutrition program, I started teaching “the monsters” and I got to share some of what I learned with the new volunteers at their training.

October: Visiting the beach town of Sihanoukville

October: Visiting the beach town of Sihanoukville

Hitting the Beach

For our second Pchum Ben, Tim and I decided to take a quick trip down south to visit the relaxed towns of Kampot and Sihanoukville.

October: back to school

October: Back to school

A Second School Year

Immediately following our trip down south, Tim’s second academic year at site began, giving him the opportunity to once again work in the public schools with his choice of counterparts. He was especially excited this year because he knew what to expect and had already developed deep friendships with several teachers at the school.

November: Seeing my parents for the first time in 16 months

November: Seeing my parents for the first time in 16 months

My Parents’ Trip

In November, my parents came to visit and we spent ten days hitting all of the tourist activities in Siem Reap, including the alligator farm, the silk farm, Apsara dancing, the floating villages, the Angkor National Museum, the ceramics center and, of course, the temples.

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December: Ringing in the new year in style

The End of 2012

Here we are at the end of the year! Tim and I are celebrating all of the triumphs (and challenges) of 2012 in style in Siem Reap.

Thanks for all of the support and love this year. Wishing everyone a great 2013!

Katie





Christmastime in Kampong Kdey

26 12 2012

I couldn’t have asked for a better Christmas week here in Cambodia. Tim and I stayed at site and had an all-star cast of volunteers over to our house for a few days before the 25th. Per usual, we gave them a tour of our town, took them to the bridge and watched bad TV. Unsurprisingly, Tim also cooked up a storm – making sure our bellies never felt empty.

Neysa opening a package from home

Neysa opening a package from home

Peter got a lot of gifts from home too

Taking a trip to the bridge

Taking a trip to the bridge

Even though some of the volunteers had to return to site, Meghan was able to stay with us for the culmination of the holiday festivities: a two day wedding celebration. We attended four ceremonies over the course of the two days, including our first hair cutting ceremony, during which all of the guests symbolically cut the bride and groom’s hair to represent a fresh start and a new life. For the final reception, we even got all dolled up Khmer-style with loads of hairspray and fake lashes.

One of my favorite parts of Khmer weddings is when all of the kids light sparklers

One of my favorite parts of Khmer weddings is when all of the kids light sparklers

Meghan dancing up a storm!

Meghan dancing up a storm!

Tim gettin' down

Tim gettin’ down

Me and a coworker from the health center

Me and a coworker from the health center

It was certainly a Christmas to remember. Only two more work days until we take a small break for New Year’s!

Katie





The Christmas Spirit

16 12 2012

It’s easy to forget that Christmas is just around the corner. Between the unrelenting heat and the distinct lack of peppermint mochas, there aren’t many clues that the holidays are upon us. Instead of Christmas carols, we hear wedding music all around, and not a single shop in town is offering a gift wrapping option. (Although, I can see it now: “Would you like a bow on that bottle of cooking oil?” “Should we add a holiday greeting card to that kilo of rice?”)

Our plans to celebrate this year are not too different from the last. We will live in denial about Christmas until exactly one week before the big day, at which point I will finally allow the festivities to begin. I believe Tim is scheming to create another faux tree, complete with the same Coca Cola ornaments he made last year. I will play the soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas on repeat for hours. We’ll watch A Christmas Story and A Muppet Christmas Carol, among other holiday-themed movies. Tim will plan the Christmas menu for days.

Christmas 2011

This year, like last, we’re having some Peace Corps friends over to celebrate with us. We’ll share a few special meals together, make sure everyone has something to open under the tree, and swap stories of holiday traditions. The major difference this year is that we’ll also be attending our friend’s wedding, which is planned for Christmas Day.

Celebrating Christmas in a tropical, Buddhist country takes a hearty dose of imagination. This Christmas Day will certainly not resemble any Christmas I’ve had in the States. There won’t be a candlelit service or a bowl full of Chex Mix, but it feels like we’re starting to make our own Christmas traditions – even from Cambodia.

Katie