Learning about Gender Roles

12 01 2013

I just can’t say enough how much I enjoy working with the Women’s Resource Center in Siem Reap. Yesterday, the manager Pisey came out to our high school to lead a session on gender roles as a part of a larger project to pilot some new health lessons written by a well-known international organization. I’ve been working with the WRC on a number of small projects recently, including planning for Camp GLOW 2013 (more on that later!) and the strategic planning project I’ve mentioned briefly before. It’s always refreshing and inspiring to work with such a positive and motivated young woman.


During yesterday’s lesson, Pisey introduced the difference between gender and sex to the 37 high school students who attended, guiding them through activities to think more deeply about how their own gender affects their experiences, health and possibilities. As always, the students were very engaged and participated actively in all of the sessions.


For more pictures from the session, check out the Facebook album here


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.


And They’re Off!

18 11 2012

I can’t believe it but my parents are already on a plane heading back to the US right now. Their trip went by so much faster than I could have ever imagined. Ten full days in Siem Reap, gone in the blink of an eye. I’m so incredibly happy and grateful that they came to visit though. I feel like they learned a lot about our lives here in Cambodia and, of course, about the country more generally. It was nice to catch up, to explore the area, and to just see one another after more than a year apart.

Two years ago, my parents would have never dreamed of coming to Cambodia so I’m very proud (and, again, grateful) that they endured the excruciatingly long plane ride over here. They then dealt graciously with lost luggage, wrong food orders, daily death marches and endless Khmer small talk. And despite it all, I think they genuinely enjoyed themselves. My dad continually impressed me with his child-like excitement and curiosity, while my mom never failed to formulate thoughtful questions and insightful observations. Tim and I had a great time, and I think they had just as much fun as we did!

We spent the entire trip in the Siem Reap area, passing some days just relaxing near the pool or river and spending others checking out all of the major tourist attractions. Here’s a quick recap of some of the activities that kept us busy.

Angkor Wat: The number one tourist attraction of the Siem Reap area (and all of Cambodia), is the Angkor Archaeological Park. The grounds are apparently home to more than 1,000 temples dating from the 9th – 15th centuries. We certainly didn’t get to see all of the temples, but we were able to explore many of the big ones including Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Ta Prohm, Bayon and others. Tim and I had a blast climbing all over the ruins and plan to return to see even more.

Ta Prohm




Monkey at Angkor Wat

Floating Villages: One evening, we took a boat ride through the floating villages, which are essentially whole towns built on stilts over the water. It was a relaxing way to spend the evening, watching the sun set over the lake.

View from the boat


My parents, just before the sun started to set

Artisans d’Angkor: Early in the trip, we took a shuttle out to the Artisans d’Angkor silk farm to see the process of how silk is made and used to create beautiful textiles. We were able to watch the whole process, from the silk worms to the final products. Then, back in town, we wandered through the workshops of other artisans creating masterpieces out of wood, metal and stone. Both sites have extraordinary gift shops with gorgeous clothing, housewares and accessories.

Silk weaving on a loom

Visiting Pagodas: We visited two pagodas in Siem Reap: Wat Bo and Wat Preah Prohm Rath. The first is one of the town’s oldest temples, with well-preserved paintings and adornments. Of the temples I’ve seen, this one was one of the most unique and was, therefore, my favorite. However, Wat Preah Prohm Rath has a stunning riverfront location and an impressively large reclining Buddha statue.

Wat Bo


More from Wat Bo


Reclining Buddha at Wat Preah Prohm Rath

Shopping: Siem Reap is home to an obscene number of shops and markets. Since we arrived last year, three separate night markets have been built, each containing dozens and dozens of individual stalls. There are also two large tourist markets open in the daytime. Needless to say, we spent a lot of time wandering through the markets, haggling for low prices on gifts for others as well as treats for ourselves. Although the sellers can be aggressive, there are gems hidden among the identical, mass-produced t-shirts and bracelets if you take the time to look.

One of the many neon signs advertising a night market


Market stalls at night

Angkor National Museum: To our surprise, the Angkor National Museum was a beautifully-presented, well-curated look at Cambodia’s history. The 1,000 Buddha images exhibit, in particular, was breathtaking.

The museum’s exterior

I was sad to see my parents go, but it’s incredible that they even came in the first place. Now, back to site and back to work for me! The rest of the pictures from the trip are scattered throughout various albums on Facebook.


Snapshots of Small Shops

11 07 2012

With nearly 90 percent of Cambodia’s employment being informal (according to the ILO), I thought I would try to document some of the small, informal businesses in our town. These are the places where we get our bikes fixed, buy tools, sip teas or have our clothes made. These little shops, and their workers, are a big part of our lives since there are no box stores to run to when we need a few things. So, here you have it: the shops of Kampong Kdey.


These snack stands have become a daily stop for us. We generally opt for either a cold tea, a coconut, or a Pepsi Twist. After sampling all of the packaged snacks available in our town, we decided none of them are worth eating, meaning we usually limit ourselves to beverages only. Generally, there’s a four or five year old selling the cigarettes and booze.


Below is a bike shop where we, you guessed it, get our bikes fixed from time to time. All in all, I’ve been very pleased with how well my Peace Corps-issued bike has worked. I’ve very rarely needed to take it in but when I do, these guys take care of it.


This is Tim’s barber shop. The man pictured is usually the one to give Tim a trim, but often there’s a younger guy with the big, Korean-pop-star-style-hair looking at himself in the mirror too.


This is one of dozens of phone shops in our town. It’s a little embarrassing how often we visit these shops. Not only do they sell the phone cards we need for our pay-as-you-go cell phones, but they also exchange money and sell Internet credit. This means we end up stopping by one of these shops every couple of days. Luckily, there are enough of them that we don’t have to keep coming back to the same people all the time.


This men’s tailor works at his house. Because he lives near us, I see him virtually every day. He works from sunup till sundown, barely pausing to eat, which is a real shame because the food at their house is spectacular. The tailor lives with a young girl named Lucy, whose smile and “hello” are generally a highlight of my day.


This is the closest thing to a department store as we have at site. Although this particular shop specializes in woven baskets, you can see it also has strings of shampoo, soap, cooking oil and other essentials. Don’t let the mobile phone umbrella fool you though — they do not sell phone cards.


This is the only printer/copy shop we have right in town so it’s where we come to print off all of our forms for Peace Corps and any classroom materials we might need. Although the Cambodian classroom does not rely heavily on printed materials, it’s a nice surprise to bring the students a study guide or handout at no-cost to them. Usually, students have to reimburse teachers (and then some) for printing things, in part because printing costs are quite high.


Plus, check out some more photos I took of site this week.


Vietnam Vacation: The End of Our Journey

21 04 2012

After 18 wonderful days, our vacation has come to an end. Kaija, Tim and I returned to Cambodia yesterday so I’ll catch you up to speed on our last two stops in the spectacular country of Vietnam.

Halong Bay

Population: 1,600 (across four floating fishing villages)

Fun Fact: Over 5 million visitors visit Halong Bay each year, with more than 11,000 visiting on New Year’s alone

What we did: Kayaked under and through different rock formations; toured a cave; swam; relaxed

Loved: The breathtaking views of the countless islands; catching up on our cribbage; sipping on a beer while the bay disappeared into darkness

Pictures: Click here.

The boat's deck

The view




Population: 6.5 million

Fun Fact: In 2010, Hanoi celebrated its 1,000th anniversary

What we did: Visited the visually stunning and informative Women’s Museum; saw Ho Chi Minh’s perfectly preserved body at the mausoleum; wandered through the Temple of Literature; got a look at John McCain’s flight suit at the prison where we was held and tortured; shopped for souvenirs; watched a water puppet performance

Loved: The narrow, European-feeling streets of the Old Quarter, packed with motos, tourists and mobile vendors; the always cheap, always delicious and always available street food; the lovely cafes where we’d rest after a long day of exploring (Avocado and chocolate shakes? Coffee lassis? Hazelnut lattes just like at home? A resounding yes on all accounts!); the colonial architecture juxtaposed with traditional temples and contemporary office buildings

Pictures: Click here. 

Traditional clothing exhibit at the Women's Museum

The Presidential Palace

St. Joseph's Cathedral


Happy International Women’s Day

8 03 2012

Today, March 8, is International Women’s Day. Although this day is not widely celebrated in the United States, it’s an official holiday in nearly 30 countries, including here in Cambodia.

Since I’ve been working regularly with a group of girls at the high school for my girls’ empowerment club, I thought it was only fitting to plan a small activity with them to commemorate International Women’s Day. This is our first project together so I decided to propose my own idea this time, so they would have an understanding of what kind of projects are feasible. (I wouldn’t want them to suggest building a new school, buying food for poor families, or an equally expensive project since I am funding these small projects out-of-pocket.)

My idea was to have the girls paint sheet signs about women’s lives in Cambodia and hang them around town. This was as much as I told them, the rest was up to them. I brought in a list of 20 possible sign messages and they picked the six that resonated most with them, plus we made a few that simply said “Happy International Women’s Day 2012.”

The girls were then in charge of asking the school director for permission, calling the commune chief, designing and painting the signs, and deciding where to hang them when we finished. The goal was to try to create an opportunity for the girls to use the leadership skills they already have, while simultaneously spreading awareness of gender issues in the area. And although some boys helped a little, the project clearly belonged to the girls.

Overall, I would say it was a success. At first, before the girls completely understood the project, we had a hard time communicating and they weren’t very excited. Once they got to pick the messages for the signs and to paint them, they were much more enthusiastic than even I would have guessed.

Some highlights from the process:

  • When the boys came to help paint the signs, the girls very enthusiastically explained to them the project and why it was important. They made it clear to everyone that it was their project, but that the boys could help. What a proud and hopeful moment.
  • While painting the signs, a debate broke out about which set of numbers to use, Khmer or Arabic (like we use in the US). One girl stood up on the teacher’s platform and wrote out all of the Khmer numbers and demanded, “Lake khmai yueng!!” (Our Khmer numbers!) A similar debate occurred when they had to decide whether to write the signs in print or the Khmer version of cursive. I’m not sure why I enjoyed these debates so much, but for some reason it made me smile to see them wrestling with some of the same type of language questions I wonder about on a regular basis.
  •  I can’t help but marvel at the attention to detail and the work ethic that Khmer students seem to have. When painting the signs, they grabbed their, no kidding, giant protractors and started drawing perfectly straight lines across the sheets before chalking out the letters they would later paint. One day, we painted for four hours straight, and they were as intensely focused and as neat at the end as they were when we started. I can’t imagine a group of high school students from the US doing the same.
  • There were some (sort of) funny moments of irony too. As we’re working on this project for International Women’s Day, a few of the girls are fanning all of the boys because of the heat. I’m sorry, what? The girls were working the hardest, someone should be fanning them! Plus, when hanging the signs around town, I didn’t let the boys come. At the first stop, one of the girls, the leader of the group really, sighed, “This would be so much easier if the boys were here!” I doubt it, the girls rocked. They were fast, efficient and great decision-makers. These incidents were, of course, small enough to be funny and ironic in the moment, but the truth about gender relations at site is no laughing matter.
  •  When one of the girls was given the task to call the commune chief and ask for permission to hang the signs, she got nervous and retreated immediately to her friends. The group of girls talked for a while about what kinds of things she should say and how to best approach a community leader. A few minutes later, the girl made the phone call, a little nervous but a total all star.

So yesterday we hung up the signs, eight in total, all around town. The girls decided to hang one in front of the market, one behind it, two at the elementary school, one at the high school, one at the wat, one at the bridge and one at the health center. Before we hung each one, they had to ask the appropriate people for permission.

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It’s been wonderful to see the girls’ signs all over town today. The project has been incredibly positive. The project itself wasn’t anything earth-shattering, and it certainly wasn’t an example of sustainable community development, but it was an opportunity for the girls to act as leaders and educate the community, while I got to know the girls a little better and learn more about how to conduct a small project in this context. It was a lot of fun. I love this group of girls and can’t wait to continue working with them.

For more pictures of this project, head over to the Facebook album here:



After a Little Time Away…

25 01 2012

An incredibly busy husband and a computer-less wife has meant an unusually long hiatus from the blogging world. But, after more than two weeks, we’re back!

First of all, let me clarify one thing since I’ve received so many inquiries in my inbox about it: I do not actually have rabies! The dog that bit me is still alive and acting perfectly normal. So nothing to worry about. The truth of it is that I probably won’t even end up with a battle scar. Oh well, I’m sure there are many more of those waiting for me in this country.

So as I mentioned before, Anne Marie came to visit. Let me give you the low down on how that was. In a word: refreshing. But I’m guessing if you read this blog, you’d probably appreciate more than a single word. (Be sure to click on the links, they lead to more pictures!)

Anne Marie arrived on Sunday the 8th. I was supposed to pick her up at the airport but I was getting my rabies shot at the time so Tim got to do the honor solo. That evening, we were able to meet up in Kampong Kdey at long last. After a dramatic sprint across the street and long, backpack-filled hug, the warp-speed chatting began. “How has the trip been? What was your favorite part? What do you want to do here? What will happen when you head back to the ‘burgh?” My questions for her were rapid fire, but so were hers for me. “How’s Cambodia? What’s Peace Corps like? How do you like your town? What should we do while I’m here?”

We spent the next two days together at site. She got to see our Angkorian era bridge, the large produce selection at the market, my health center, and all the charm that a small Cambodian town has to offer. Because she was here for Victory Over Genocide Day, she even got to attend a traditional Cambodian party with us. Sampot and all!

Together again at last

Then she took off to Siem Reap, leaving me and Tim at site for a few days to continue our daily work (hence the boring work-related post that seemed to almost immediately follow the dramatic announcement of her arrival). On Friday though, we all headed to Battambang together to explore the laid back, artsy town I first discovered during our in-service training.

We took a boat ride from Siem Reap to Battambang. It was supposed to take six hours but, in reality, ended up being closer to nine and a half. The first five hours were lovely. The views were beautiful, and it provided insight into a side of Cambodian life that I hadn’t gotten to see yet. However, after gently crashing once and having to pump water out from the boat twice, we were ready to arrive at our destination.

Three passengers set sail that day for a nine hour tour, a nine hour tour

We spent a few days in Battambang being tourists, something else I had yet to really experience in my first six months in country. We ate at all the Western restaurants, shopped at the Japanese thrift store and visited Cambodia’s only winery. We also hit up one “must see” for tourists: the bamboo train. It’s a small wooden platform that is powered by a motor along train tracks. It’s simultaneously exhilarating and relaxing. I’m not sure if I need to do it again but it was definitely worth the five bucks. The highlight, however, was the circus. Seeing the young people, who are trained at a French-run school in Battambang, contort themselves, balance on the tightrope and do all sorts of flips in the air was nothing less than impressive. The most impressive thing, however, was their spirit. All of the kids were such great performers. They were so funny, so talented and so extroverted. It was a side of Cambodian youth that I don’t often get to see at site.

Batambang circus

From Battambang, we headed southeast to Phnom Penh. And once again, I got to be a tourist, taking photos of the markets, the riverfront and the colonial architecture. While in Phnom Penh, we took a tuk tuk out to one of the biggest killing fields in the country. The Khmer Rouge killed approximately 17,000 Cambodians at this site, often by beating them to death as to save precious bullets. Although there isn’t much to see at the site, the audio tour was well done, and it’s important for any foreigner in Cambodia to see. After all of the death and destruction, we were lucky enough to be able to book ourselves some luxury treatment at one of the many spas in the city. After an hour long massage and a pedicure, I was feeling like I could take on the world. (Isn’t life as a Peace Corps Volunteer hard?)

Royal Palace Complex in Phnom Penh

But it wasn’t the world I had to take on, it was “goodbye.” Anne Marie’s ten days in Cambodia had come to an end already. At one of our last meals together, I realized how energized I was feeling after having seen her. I was worried that having a piece of home close to me again would make me sad, but it had the opposite effect. It was so wonderful to see such a close friend; I am so lucky.

When I asked Anne Marie her thoughts on Cambodia, one of the things she kept repeating was how “reasonable” it is. Tourists use many words to describe Cambodia: tragic, enchanting, humble, beautiful. “Reasonable?” I hadn’t heard that one. “It’s all so reasonable,” she’d start. “The prices, the food, the people, the accommodations. Even the buses are reasonable.” And it’s true, especially for a tourist. Cambodia is a reasonable country in a lot of ways. I had been using the words “gentle” and “easy,” but I think ultimately, we were saying the same thing. It’s easy to be happy here as a foreigner. You’re not working against the culture or the people to feel good.Things just seem to work in your favor, even if the country is still going through some serious struggles at the macro level. There’s little harassment or violence toward outsiders. Locals tend to be open and appreciate your limited language skills or cultural knowledge. You get your own seat on the bus. You can afford to treat yourself once in while. These are perfectly reasonable things that don’t exist everywhere. It’s an interesting perspective.

After Anne Marie left me to go explore the beaches of Thailand (and then the hidden wonders of Laos), I stayed in Phnom Penh for a few meetings, and just got back to site on Sunday. It’s so refreshing to be back. I always miss this place when I’m away. It’s not that I feel like I have so many friends here or that my work is too important to leave for a week. It’s not any of that. This place is just comfortable and happy. It makes me breathe a sigh of relief every time I get off the bus and head toward my house.

So anyway, I’m back in the swing of things. You can expect more posts soon.


Christmas in Cambodia

26 12 2011

Merry Christmas everyone!

Being away for the holidays has been difficult for many Volunteers. The majority of us have found ourselves getting nostalgic about things like cups of rich hot chocolate, snow covered landscapes and Christmas carols. However, thanks to some wonderful people– both here and back home– Tim and I had a great Christmas weekend in spite of being so far from family!

My (incredibly generous) parents sent us a couple of packages stuffed to the brim with wrapped presents and delicious foods we’ve been missing from back home. Included in the packages were cards from some of my relatives back home too. They were the only two Christmas packages that arrived before the holidays (apparently there are others on the way), but they certainly helped create a Christmas atmosphere. Friday afternoon we put on some Christmas tunes and sat at the base of Tim’s makeshift Christmas tree made of brooms and Coke cans. As we opened up our presents– everything from gift cards to jewelry to homemade Chex mix– it truly felt like Christmas.

Then three of our dearest Peace Corps friends came for a visit. The lovely ladies spent a couple of nights with us at site, exploring our small town, making obscene amounts of food and catching up on one another’s experiences here. It was a perfectly relaxed, yet festive, weekend that set the bar high for future holidays in Cambodia.

Enjoy the slide show below or check out the public Facebook album here. 

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Our First Khmer Wedding

8 12 2011

Tim’s co-teacher Chanthou got married this week, and we were invited to both days of the wedding festivities. There is truly too much to say about Khmer weddings– it would never fit in only one blog entry– so today we will just include some of the highlights.

The happy couple!

Specifically, we’d like to recognize the three most awkward moments of the occasion– you know, those moments that have you physically uncomfortable because of how agonizingly awkward they are. I have to tell you, this was a tough decision. We felt that there were many worthy moments, but we’ve narrowed it down to the top three for your pleasure.

(Before going on, let’s not take this too seriously. Virtually all cultures have wedding rituals that would seem nothing short of bizarre to outsiders. I could have just as easily compiled a list of awkward moments at US weddings. The removing of the garter, anyone?)

Okay, let’s begin with the second runner-up.

3.) The bride and groom stoically sompea-ing (bowing) to the audience as they were being covered in silly string. It doesn’t sound like much, I know, but how on Earth do you take yourself seriously when being sprayed with silly string? The juxtaposition of one of mankind’s most playful inventions against the solemn (grave, even) expressions on the wedding party’s faces was just too much for me.  High awkwardness rating.

Next up…

2.) The father being fed a banana by the wedding singer. Painfully awkward to watch. I’ll let the photo speak for itself.

And, (drum roll, please!), the winner of most awkward moment is….

1.) The bride and groom’s first kiss!

As I’ve mentioned, Cambodian courtship is drastically different from in the US. For example, a couple getting married in our town has (generally) never kissed before. This was the case for Tim’s co-teacher and his new wife, and let’s just say it was blindingly obvious that this was their first time.

In fact, it reminded me of a little clip that I recently came across on the interwebs. If you haven’t seen this clip of Ellen talking about TLC’s new show “Virgin Diaries,” I implore you to do so now. You will not regret it… plus, it will help you better relate to the discomfort that Tim and I felt last night watching the nervous couple share their first kiss.

“Less chewing!”

Okay, all jokes aside, Tim and I had a great time at the wedding. Chanthou and Kunthea seem to be sincerely happy, and we wish them the best of luck. We felt very lucky to get to participate in the celebrations, especially with so many friends who made sure we had a good time. It was a very special occasion and one that I’m sure we will remember for a long time. Congratulations to the new couple!!

Tune in tomorrow for our awards for the top three best dishes at the event. And, in the meantime, check out more pictures of the wedding on Facebook.


Party at the Dragon Bridge

28 11 2011

Last week, the Angkor-era Dragon Bridge in our town was the center of a three-day celebration that much resembled a small fair. The streets were filled with people playing games, admiring the lighted boats in the water, sampling chicken kabobs from food stands, and watching Khmer movies projected on big screens. Periodically, a single firework would explode in the sky. Apparently, the celebration was to help raise funds for the wat that’s being built outside of town.

Here’s a short video of the traditional music and dancing that took place:

Click here for more pictures of the event: Dragon Bridge Party Pictures