I Signed for Six-Months and Then I Stayed for Six-Years in Cambodia

The year I left the Philippines to work overseas, the people of the world, were preparing for the doomsday. The main headline everywhere was the Y2K virus that was supposed to create havoc in the world, and the coming of Jesus was inevitable.

Nothing happened. No computer glitched happened, and no Jesus arrived with brimstone and death. So I forged ahead and started a new life as an expat.

My first international sojourn

I wrote in my blog The Reluctant Overseas Worker how I came to be an overseas worker. It was not something I dreamt of doing after I finished university. The adventure to work overseas landed on my lap without me trying and when an opportunity like this comes who am I to refuse.

Cambodia opened the skies for me, it was my first destination. I didn’t have difficulty settling in because I have family over there.

I have a brother living in Phnom Penh since the early 90’s and my sister who is a nun was assigned there after the coup d’etat in 1997 until few months after I arrived in 2000. And the Filipino community I met was very welcoming and helpful.

The culture was different, but it was not very imposing that its hard to adapt, moving around was easy for non-drivers like me, and the food was great so you will forgive me when I say living in Cambodia, in any part of it, I felt like I was on perpetual vacation all year round. Security was touch and go in the beginning and it improved over time.


I arrived in the country when everything was rustic. and security was lax (but one cannot be complacent). Airports are like ground zero – old runway riddled with potholes, the airport was fenced with corrugated iron and we walked to the gate after we deplane. Once inside the small arrival area, I got the feel of the country — the noise, the chaos and the smell (much like some of the Philippines domestic airport).

Outside was another experience and that’s when I felt I am in another country. I was welcomed by the dusty humid heat and array of colorfully dressed women, men, and children. They are happily waiting and sending off families and friends by the truckload and it was noisily excited!

No time to rest, I was in my new center the day after I arrived. I went to meet my new colleagues and got the introduction and met the different people that I will be interacting with and would help me adjust and settle in.

I settled in well.

Too well actually because a couple of weeks after I arrived, experiencing how easy it was to work with my organization, my colleagues and my team I told myself I can do this and make this my new career move.

My initial contract was 6-months. I was only to give on-the-job training to a few therapists who graduated in the only PT school in the country in French. The organization that hired me was English, and the medium of instructions was English so imagine me, a wide-eyed young woman in a foreign land in a male-dominated industry trying to figure out how I will do my job and not lose face (that is me being Asian) in case I bungled it up. I managed to overcome the language barrier and easily settled in my work like I was born for it.

I was happy that among the seven therapists I was to work with, five of them are female and two are male but only two of them speaks good English. The head of the rehabilitation center was also a woman from the US. She runs the whole rehabilitation center and community program while her husband runs the prosthetics and orthotics workshop and the technical school.

It was very different from working in the hospitals’ in the Philippines (which hasn’t changed a lot since), I had more freedom to be creative, and innovative in handling cases. It was refreshing.

Introduction to international development

When I joined the organization that recruited me I had no idea what they are doing. All I had was information from what they sent me to read. I don’t even know much about the country. That was the time when internet searches were something to be dreamed of and the search engine doesn’t have that much-stored data yet and Facebook will not be born until after four years.

I did learn about Cambodia but with its old name Kampuchea from my history classes in high school and from what my brother told me. I knew about the Khmer Rouge genocide and that the people had to flee their country which that time I could relate to Vietnam boat people and of course the world famous Angkor Wat. But I had no inkling as to the gravity of the aftermath of the genocide until I was there and seeing them in my own eyes.

My new realities

I never saw that much amputation in my life. It was only when I moved to Cambodia that I realized it would be my reality on top of other physical disabilities that we will find in the community where the centers were operating. Twenty years after the war, I still saw acute cases because there were still landmines everywhere in the country. I tried hard to keep my emotion to myself and get on with my job. Others were not so lucky in controlling their emotions because it is just very sad to see the impact it has on the lives of the people at that time.

(Dhidhak Collections / Cambodia 2005)
A reminder of the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge in the 70’s (Cheung Ek grounds) (Dhidhak Collections / Cambodia 2005)
(Dhidhak Collections / Cambodia 2005)
Tould Sleng Museum grounds

Back then the idea of talking about your feelings is as rare as watching a movie in a theater in Phom Penh. I managed my own stresses and emotion by looking at different ways to unwind and I am glad that Cambodia was such a hub for fun activities – live music, good food, touristic sites etc.

A lifelong commitment

The country drew me in and joining my organization Cambodia Trust that runs one of the successful prosthetics and orthotics school in the capital Phnom Penh and physical rehabilitation centers also in Phnom Penh, Sihanoukville (Kampong Som) and Kampong Channang made the transition easy.

All the centers were providing services to people with physical injuries while the school trains technicians using Cambodian standard prosthesis – durable, lightweight and cheap produced locally. It was a fun learning and working experience. I was involved in anything and everything that has to do with uplifting the standards of physiotherapy and rehabilitation services in the country together with other organization in the field aligned with the prosthetics and orthotics services.

Discovering that there are so much to do with very little time, I extended my contract and eventually stayed in Cambodia for 6 years discovering more about human rights and international laws and treaties, and many more until it was time for me to move to another continent.

You can check out Signs of Times: A Summary of My Two Decades of Experience in International Development

Adjustments to the realities of war and violence

Note: This blog post has been published in https://mydecadelongtravels.wordpress.com/2017/09/26/adjustments-to-the-altered-realities-of-war-and-violence/

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But what if you didn’t die when exposed to the cruelty of the world?

That person ends up disabled changing the dynamics of his or her life and of the lives of the people around them. Especially those closes to him or her whose coping with the change also affects their being starting from their psyche.

I call it the ripple effect as a consequence of trauma.

The impact of disability, which brings change to the person himself is too much. It is life changing, altering everything he worked all his life for. Everything that they know is normal is altered forever. In their mind, more often than not their lives are over, and with that thought, it is often difficult to convince people of the alternatives. That life continues with some accommodations to start over and build a new reality.

Like in any situation of trauma, people with disabilities undergo the process of grief and acceptance. No one can do it alone, help should be available when traumatic events happen in one’s life.

The assurance that “you are not alone” should be there to see the person through the initial shock of the new reality of being alive and of being different.

The difference should be a part when the person learns to accept that it does not change anything more than the appearance. His or her mental health should be considered immediately to allow reality to set in with less dramatic effect on his understanding of his or her new person. Accepting together with him or her would be the closest people in his life because, like rearing children, acceptance of change is a “village.”

Not knowing what is there for him or her, and for them further traumatizes the person’s mind and body that is why it is important that during emergencies, psychological first aid – counseling is available and accessible to all.

Mental health support is for all the people that surround him or her as it will buoy them over to the new reality of their lives and prepare for their environment. This is accompanying immediate medical and physical support to get the person back on his or her feet and start to follow the process until a new life, an accepted reality is reached empowering the person himself and those around him into continue living because at least that they can do something about it.

No one support is more important – be it physical, medical or mental health support. We have to look at the person and acknowledge that what s/he needs is a holistic approach to allow full and complete recovery.  And continue to be part of the environment with the support of the people around them, equally able to adjust to the new life brought on by senseless war and violence in our world.

#NoMoreWar

Signs of Times: A Summary of My Two Decades of Experience in International Development

The world has changed since I set out to conquer it two decades ago. Progress has reached most of the countries I worked with and new challenges had risen overriding perineal problems of poverty, accessibility to basic services, human trafficking, joblessness. With the rise of populism, strongman syndrome, and complete disregard of humanity in war-stricken countries (Syria and Yemen) and man-made disasters (Plight of the Rohingya) that targets us humanitarian workers and civilians especially women and children.

We still have a lot of things to do.

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Screengrab (Link embedded in the photo)

Many airports have improved from the list of countries I visited, it was my sign of progress. I used to experience eating “fish and chips” for breakfast in a 1-hour flight in Cambodia flown by Russian pilot I was having smashing drinks the night before. Or travel 12 hours by road in the pot-riddled hi-way going to the north and only after 4 years, public buses started to ply the paved road and the 12 hours going to Siem Reap reduced to 4 hours if the driver doesn’t decide to sleep before continuing.

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Screengrabbed: Google Image

I had the exposure to life and situations I wouldn’t have known if I stayed working in the hospital in the Philippines even if the people I am helping are those that would rather buy food than to go to hospitals to seek medical attention.

I worked for a long time in the disability sector. My training in school didn’t prepare me for the training I learned in the field. I learned how disability is created and become part of the big and dynamic disability movement advocating for the rights of the vulnerable and the marginalized including people with disabilities. I was immersed in the sector when the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities was launched in 2006, a significant treaty that made history – it being signed by over 100 countries when it was launched in March of that year. Many laws and treaties followed, and new goals were designed to continue to support the most marginalized sector in the global society.

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Screengrab (Link embedded in the photo)

I trained a lot of people. I told my friends I teach in classrooms with no walls. In return I learned a lot from them too, I become self-conscious that I am just one tiny person in the vast world of issues that matter.

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Community Training in Bo, Sierra Leone (Dhidhak Collection)

The problem doesn’t get solved. There are still countries willing to fund wars and fund terrorist and pretend to do actions against them. I was in France when the US invaded Iraq in 2003 and the year after the issues of cluster bombs was discussed in Paris, and the Convention on Cluster Munition was launched much later. The organization I worked the longest (www.hi.org) actively advocated on banning the use of landmines and cluster munition during a war. Sad to say, some countries producing them won’t agree to stop because there is no livelihood alternative for them (Billions $ invested in producers of globally banned cluster bombs) to do. But what is sadder is the collateral lives affected by the use of cluster bombs and landmines … especially children (The human impact of cluster munitions) long after wars has ended.

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Signage like this are found all around Cambodia (Dhidhak Collection)

I was exposed to the consequences of war. I lived in the biggest outdoor prison called Gaza Strip while I enjoy the perks of drinking alcohol in the land stolen from them by their oppressor across the border. I also lived in the most reclusive country in the world that is already opening up (latest news: North Korea changes its time zone to match South). But they are not comparable.

I got stopped at checkpoints and lied to get my way out of a bind. I escaped narrow death coming down slippery slopes in places where the road is an imagination. My drivers are my best friends in all my mission, including taxi drivers.

I lived with people who otherwise I will not encounter in my life. I worked with a lot of French people but never learned the language but adapted their accent for better understanding. I sometimes return back to the American accent I am always mistaken to have, but I guess that’s just my Filipino accent muddled with all the language I have stored in my head.

I tried to impose self-gag because sometimes it is the right thing to do. My actions, my words and maybe my thoughts (out loud) can have consequences. You never know but what I do know is that Big Brother is always watching.

Join me as I continue to be an active observer in this crazy world of ours and try to be chill with it accepting that we live in an imperfect world.

The late Joy Irving, my first mentor as community worker and educator told me “we cannot change the world all at the same time but we can make a difference alone one brick at a time”

And that is what I am doing. I will continue to stack my bricks to create the foundation to support all that I and like-minded people want to achieve in our lifetime.

Harry Styles – Sign of the Times (Audio)