How many of you remember your first overseas sojourn outside the Philippines?
I am sure you were very excited with a mixture of apprehension of not knowing what to expect from the airport of origin to the new port of entry.
I finished a course in college where we are destined to be working overseas. My friends already had contracts signed for the US before they even graduated. They cannot stop talking where they will go, but not me. I didn’t find working overseas appealing until I experienced it myself.
A little backstory
I content myself working in a tertiary hospital 10 minutes walk from my house. The hospital was behind the zoo and next to the Manila Bay. The lion was my alarm clock, but I don’t need to rush to go to work. I eat proper breakfast, and I always get to attend the morning mass before I head to my department to prepare.
I was seeing an average of 40 patients every day and supervised at least six students. I was not obliged to attend any meetings, so all the time spent in the hospital was mostly patient care and supervision-training of future therapists.
And then I got bored. I got disillusioned with my chosen profession because being in a tertiary hospital; you don’t get much excitement regarding the type of cases to treat. We had the usual instances of strokes. Then there would be the occasional fracture, cerebral palsy, and plenty of arthritis.
Don’t get me wrong, I love to be with those people, but it just became monotonous and mediocre before I even knew that word exists.
Despite the department being the hub for cases that take forever to heal, the people I met and gave treatment to are the best people you will encounter in your life. The most grateful people. I was well fed with local delicacies because one of my oldest patients owns the biggest stall in the Paco Market, selling all local “kakanin” (treats). We met special people too, and they get attached to their therapist that sometimes it becomes a competition – a healthy one to who should go first.
Then I changed work.
For a year, I became a secretary of one medical association. I can’t say it enriched my life except being organized. I discovered how awful some doctors are in real life at the same time I made friends for life.
I decided to quit for my sanity’s sake and took the ship to go to the south of the Philippines and discover General Santos and Davao. It was a good break, and it also broke the bank that pushed me to accept the first job offered by a competent doctor I met the year before.
I became a research assistant and bypassed the recruitment process until I can’t anymore. That stint enriched my life – it opened my eyes to a full new understanding of research and ethics. And of course office politics.
A blessing in disguise
I can’t seem to get my laboratory to become a regular employee. After several attempts, I accepted that I would only work as a temp and wilt away in the lab with the monkeys.
Until I got a call from my brother saying he gave my credential to one international organization in Cambodia and should wait to be contacted. Eventually got the proverbial call, offering a short term job training local physiotherapists on the job. How hard can it be? Since I was already doing it, the decision to accept didn’t take too long to come.
I got hired.
The organization processed my paper immediately once I had all my documents in order, and two months after my birthday celebration in the year 2000, I flew out of the Philippines landing in Cambodia to start a new adventure, and I never looked back.
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.
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!
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.
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.
The waiting maiden found along the coast overlooking the horizon waiting for her love to return from the sea (Dhidhak Collections / Nepal 2015)
Paved roads along the beach (Dhidhak Collections / Nepal 2015)
Paved road along the beach (Dhidhak Collections / Nepal 2015)
Big hotels along the beach ((Dhidhak Collections / Nepal 2015)
Old buildings used to be used as government office back in the old days (Dhidhak Collections / Nepal 2015)
Parks along the beach (Dhidhak Collections / Nepal 2015)
The entrance to the ferry port if you want to go to the Rabbit Island (Dhidhak Collections / Nepal 2015)
Ferry dock and beyond is the Rabbit Island (Dhidhak Collections / Nepal 2015)
More paved roads … the roundabout taken from behind — to the right is the hill going to Vanna HIll (Dhidhak Collections / Nepal 2015)
The famous Naga images you will find all over Cambodia and behind is the government building (Dhidhak Collections / Nepal 2015)
The roundabout front view … seen when you’re arriving to Kep — to the right is the beach (Dhidhak Collections / Nepal 2015)
Cambodian government building and park in front of it (Dhidhak Collections / Nepal 2015)
More paved roads (Dhidhak Collections / Nepal 2015)
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.
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.
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 Workerhow 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.
View of the Central market in Phnom Penh from the top (Dhidhak Collections/Cambodia 2005)
One of their gods wrapped in orange cloth – color of the monks (Dhidhak Collections/Cambodia 2005)
One of the faces of Bayon – Angkor Wat compound (Dhidhak Collections/Cambodia 2005)
My parents when they visited Siem Reap (Dhidhak Collections/Cambodia 2005)
The roof of the royal palace late afternoon (Dhidhak Collections/Cambodia 2005)
Sihannouk ville sunset (Dhidhak Collections/Cambodia 2005)
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.
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.