I Kep It A Secret

Cambodia was a good training ground for anyone who wants to venture into international development work back then. I started mine in early 2000 I Signed for Six-Months, and Then I Stayed for Six-Years in Cambodia, but I don’t know now.  The last two times I visited I almost didn’t recognize the country, so much progress had happened, and of course, I was happy.

The last time I visited the country was in 2015 it was so much different than when I left in 2006 and returned again in 2008 except for the capital Phnom Penh, it has always been crazy but with less traffic.

This time, I made sure that I don’t stay long in  Phnom Penh,  I was escaping the hustle and bustle of the city. I just wanted peace and quiet, away from the crowd, close to nature but not too far away from the civilization.

I was trying to get away from the stresses brought on by straight three months work during my time in Nepal. The initial fears of aftershocks to living in small tents for almost a month and living in a high rise (well only the 3rd floor) when you don’t know when the next shake will be.  I was escaping that to center myself again before going back to it one last time.

So I decided to be somewhere different from what I remember — I went to Kep.

The province is close to the beach that was developing fast but not as fast as its neighboring provinces of Kampot and Sihanouk Ville. Back in the days, we cannot just go there without encountering danger signs. Most parts of the region were closed off because of the landmines.  Kep was not a real province until 2008, it was still part of Kampot, and the safest place to visit back then was the beach side of the province.

So to be safe, I stayed not along the beach but close. When you enter Kep proper, just after the roundabout before turning to the right, I turned left and gone up a little uphill where Vanna Hill Resort was located. It’s away from the main road and away from the crowd but close enough to not be afraid to return late in the night from watching the sunset and enjoying a meal along the beach … alone.

(Dhidhak Collections / Nepal 2015)
Sitting on the balcony in front of my room … I have the cottage all to myself (Dhidhak Collections / Nepal 2015)

September – October was off season I am the only guest in the whole resort hotel. I rented the double cottage facing the sea and every day for the whole time I was there I wake up to see the sunrise and in my hammock to watch the sunset. I felt like I own it or at least I can pretend ha! ha!

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I enjoyed every amenities of the resort and really unwind. I am in the swimming pool in the morning and go around the town in my rented tuk-tuk in the afternoon.

When I am not eating outside, I can ask the kitchen to whip up something delicious for me. Traditional Cambodian food that I missed like Fish Amok and Cambodian Curry with seafood instead of the traditional chicken. But beware it can be pricey to order something for one, and those dishes are actually eaten with a company.

But no trip to the beach in Cambodia without the tradition of buying your fresh seafood in the market, having it cooked and enjoying them while watching people and again the sunset.

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The beachfront along Kep was so much different from what I remembered back in the days. Gone are the dirt road, dusty and potholed. It was replaced by wide asphalt road that connects directly to the highway.

There were also big hotels and boutique hotels, and some that have seen better days along the beachfront that caters to just about anybody who wants to spend a weekend in Kep.

I was tempted to visit and spend the night in the  Koh Tonsay (Rabbit Island), but since it’s low tourist season there will be no one there with me, and the locals usually go home to the mainland in the evening,

My trip to Kep gave me the rest and recuperation I needed to go back to Nepal and finish off my mission and return home in time for the holidays.

***

Practical tips:

  • Get the van to Kep and arrange to drop you off your hotel. I took the bus going home, but we had a breakdown, and I arrived very late than my original plan.
  • Off peak season is always cheap and you can choose a different room than what you booked if you didn’t like it (at no cost for me but for you maybe with a little bit extra).
  • Eating outside is also cheaper than having meals prepared for you in the hotel unless you come in big groups.
  • Solo travel is always fun to do but be always on the side of caution. Book transport with the hotel at least they know the driver, and they speak English.
  • Carry small bills with you all the time – in local currency and in dollars.
  • Always smile, Cambodians are such friendly people.

Happy traveling!

 

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