Stories and Silence in Phnom Penh: How I Learned about Cambodia’s Haunting History

Stories and Silence in Phnom Penh: How I Learned about Cambodia’s Haunting History

{Disclaimer: this post discusses difficult content and may not be appropriate for all readers.}

[This post is the third part in a four-part series on my recent trip to Southeast Asia]

The Cambodian people are a warm, smiling, welcoming people. The people we met in our travels were gracious and kind. The kind of people who wave and smile brightly as you stand confused trying to cross the toad with never-ending traffic with your obviously-tourist pack. A wave and smile that doesn’t judge but says “Welcome to Cambodia!”. The capital of Phnom Penh is developing so quickly that if you stand still long enough, you can watch the city grow. However, this shift in development comes after a horrific period in their history, followed by international misunderstanding and mishandling in the wake of a genocide.

Cambodian countryside

I knew little of the Cambodian genocide until watching Brother Number One at the then called Global Visions Festival in Edmonton. It told the story of the genocide through one man’s journey to understand what happened to his brother after he sailed into Cambodian waters in 1978. It was powerful and gruesome and heart-breaking.

During our stay in Phnom Penh, the travel-savvy Camille organized a van to tour for our group, a fantastic hodge-podge of six visiting Canadians who happened upon the city at the same time. The van would take us to two memorial sites dedicated to the victims of the Khmer Rouge genocide: the Killing Fields and S21.

Killing Fields
The uncovered Killing Fields.

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What will be our Angkor Wat?: Explorations in Angkor

What will be our Angkor Wat?: Explorations in Angkor

[This post is the second part in a four-part series on my recent trip to Southeast Asia]

Walking past the people hawking elephant pants and the fresh fruit stands, I approached my first temple within Angkor Wat – Pre Rup, a temple in tribute to the king’s mother. A Hindu temple, built in the 10th century before the Cambodian people converted to Buddhism. Our tour guide explained how a whole town would have lived surrounding the temple and where we stood was once covered in water. He drew in the sand to detail the layout and used the hand carved leather works for sale to illustrate the symbols of the ancient civilization.

Pre Rup carvings

The endurance of the structure became clear as I slowly climbed the steps of the central tower, the cremation tower. The steps rose more than a foot each time, ensuring a calmer, more solemn pace, especially as centuries of footsteps followed by modern-day tourism have rounded the edges of each stair. The restored ornate carvings marking each doorway add an otherworldly charm. The dancing and fighting figures intertwined with plants and animals tell stories I only begin to understand after sitting and reading my guidebook and looking and reading and looking.

Exploring Angkor

The Angkor Archeological Park Complex is immense. It is larger than life and has withstood centuries of life. From weather to rediscovery to theft to the Khmer Rouge, this immense center of worship that expands over 400 acres is the largest religious monument in the world, Lonely Planet’s number one site in the world, and is hard to truly comprehend.

Angkor Wat at sunrise

We explored it by van, by tuktuk, and by bicycle. By guide, by guidebook, and by gut.  The site is overwhelming and has a lifetime of exploration possibilities. After just three days and scratching the surface, I walked away with a feeling of awe and endurance.

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Bangkok Streets: The Savvy Sightseeing Way

Bangkok Streets: The Savvy Sightseeing Way

[This post is the first part in a four-part series on my recent trip to Southeast Asia]

Bangkok is a feast for the senses and a city of cities. I just scratched the surface and can only share my brief experience as one that made me want to go back. Bangkok was swept from a sleepy trade town to a scandalous city during the Viet Nam War (or, as they say in that end of the world, the American War) and has grown into a modern metropolis. It has architectural, cultural and culinary delights worth traveling for. For all its sites, the best way to experience it, in my humble opinion, was through its streets.

Bangkok Chess break on Silom Road
Chess break on Silom Road

Streetside sightseeing is my preferred way to explore a city. By keeping away from the main tourist strips and diving into side streets (in Bangkok, the intricate Soi system), back alleys and the less-trodden parts. On these walks, you can discover the everyday grit and atmosphere that defines a city as much or more than its brightest monuments or minds. Plus, it totally free.

Bangkok soi shop
A wee shop found on a soi off a soi off a soi of Silom Road.

We arrived in Bangkok on New Year’s Eve, spilling out of the BTS airport line and into the warm evening air. The streets were disorienting in so many ways. The traffic flows in the opposite direction. (We tried catching a bus and ended up crossing an intersection five times). The sidewalks are jammed with …life. The waxing and waning strips of asphalt theoretically separating pedestrian and vehicular life are vibrant. There’s commerce, there’s love, there’s children’s play, there’s poverty, there’s chess, there’s fighting, there’s drama, there’s worship, there’s fruit, there’s greenery, and of course, there’s food. Oh, the food!

Bangkok pad thai
My first of many Pad Thai dishes.

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“Puszi! Puszi!” And Other Lessons in Hungarian

“Puszi! Puszi!” And Other Lessons in Hungarian

I finished my second Hungarian class just before the holidays. The finale was fun with a trip to Vörösmarty tér to put my fledgling magyar mumblings to use in the midst of the bustling Christmas market. Stumbling over double-letter letters (gy and ny ain’t easy) and creatively applying my limited vocabulary, my classmate and I successfully ordered a lángos and forralt bor, asked for prices and made small talk with patient, pleasant Hungarian vendors. With my head brimming with newly found knowledge and Hungarian wine, I wanted to share some of my favourite Hungarian language phrases.

This language is notoriously difficult to learn. Many people use this as an excuse not to, and in Budapest, you can generally get along fine without it. I can’t say I’ve reached the level of learning where I see this tremendous complication, though I can see it in the distance. For anyone considering learning it, go for it! For a beginner, don’t get scared off – basic Hungarian it’s no more complicated than any other language, and its full of verbal delights.

Heros Square
Heros Square: a monument to Hungarian history

The language has an interesting history, and the Magyars are fiercely proud of their difficult nyelv. This video provides the best summary of Hungarian I’ve heard yet, as well as a handy dose of Magyar history:

Yet, they are among the most generous, patient and encouraging people to language learners. Nearly every Hungarian has met my bumbling efforts with a kind smile, surprised eyes and a reply.  A friend recently told me that when foreigners learn Hungarian, it’s as though we’re stroking the soul of the country. If that’s not encouragement to learn, I don’t know what is.

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In Praise of the Humble Christmas Card

In Praise of the Humble Christmas Card

After a long, chilly December day, you make your way home. On your way to your door, you take a peek inside the mailbox. A small envelope with your name, hand-written, makes your day so much warmer as you bustle inside and shed your layers to open the mail. The envelope reveals a colourful Christmas card and a reminder of a loved one somewhere in the world*.

Christmas tree on a roof
A little warmth on a cold December night.

I am a big proponent of the Christmas card, as a recipient and a sender. In general, we give too much ‘stuff’ during the holidays. I know that pressure to give the people you love and appreciate …something to let them know that you care about them at Christmas time. This well-intentioned thought often leads to gifts that aren’t really needed and aren’t really right for that person. They sit awkwardly in the place of the words and emotions it was meant to convey. More often than not, a heartfelt card can capture and share that thought better than any poorly chosen gift. During the holidays, keep it simple, and simply send your love.

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A Simple Traveler’s Guide to Berlin

A Simple Traveler’s Guide to Berlin

Berlin is undeniably cool. It’s a city exploding with culture and subculture after a century of divisive politics that changed the world. It’s modern yet gritty, full of change-makers and fun to explore. I spent a weekend there in October, my second time to the German capital.

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Each time I travel, I try to minimize my budget, my impact, and my stress so I can better enjoy myself. Traveling is amazing, but it’s not without its challenges. In my journey to live simply, I’m trying to travel simply as well. Here are my takes on traveling simply in Berlin, saving you money and adding to your time.

Traveling Simply: For the Budget

Halle-loumi!

The large Turkish population in Berlin brought with it a delicious food tradition. The city is filled with great spots to enjoy falafel and halloumi. In fact, if you do a quick search for ‘cheap eats in Berlin’ (an important pre-departure step for any trip), the lists are limited in German options and packed with tasty, budget-friendly Turkish ones. Search for the lists, or just keep an eye out for a Turkish restaurant with a line and join in.

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On Donald Trump, the Berlin Wall and Leonard Cohen

On Donald Trump, the Berlin Wall and Leonard Cohen

I almost couldn’t get out of bed. Derek was up, opened his laptop and said “Oh my god.” I knew from that statement that what I thought couldn’t be true when going to sleep,  just might be true now.

The wave of statements that Donald J. Trump had said over the election felt very, very heavy. The racist, ignorant, sexist things he said were now words from the mouth of the President of the United States of America. The flashbacks to the video clips, the tweets, the new stories. It all seemed so incredulous and absurd. And yet, on the morning of November 9th, 2016, it became not a farce, but a real part of the American discourse as Trump became President-elect.

Twilight on Election Eve
Twilight on Election Eve

As a woman, I felt a guttural fear for the rights of women. Trump was on video stating that he forces himself on women. Changing rape culture needs to come from shifting attitudes from both sexes. What lessons are we teaching the young men about respect and consent when the President-elect has a history of abuse?

A Not-So-Great Wall

As a citizen of North America, I felt a deep worry about the insular and xenophobic nature of Trump’s immigration and (often vague) foreign policies. The most famous and seemingly ridiculous statement was the infamous wall:

“I will build a great wall — and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me –and I’ll build them very inexpensively. I will build a great, great wall on our southern border, and I will make Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words.” – Donald Trump

When today’s politicians talk about a wall, it’s a physical representation of a societal break. I saw the wall built on the border between Budapest and Belgrade. I saw the wall carving out land between Israel and the West Bank. To me, it represents a failing of our modern society. Are we so crude to need a wall to resolve a problem? As humans with decency and compassion, can we not find a stronger, more elegant solution?

<center> The dividing line of the former Berlin Wall, now the East Side Gallery
The dividing line of the former Berlin Wall, now the East Side Gallery

A wall is not sustainable. It seems we are forgetting our history. With poetic timing, Trump was elected on the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

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Serenissima in Venice: Six Tips for Traveling Simply

Serenissima in Venice: Six Tips for Traveling Simply

Venice is a marvel. It holds the heavy weight of an empire, full of marble and fine art, on pillars imposed on a lagoon long ago in the time of Barbarians. The whole city seems to be floating, and in many ways, it is.

Water is essential and yet a dilemma for the city. Water allowed a faux-city of fishermen to evolve into an empire that connected East and West. Yet, the city floods annually, creating an on-going challenge to protect the impressive infrastructure from damage and decay. It is difficult to imagine how marble was shifted into place from neighbouring islands, piles and boats to act as waterproofing of palaces. It’s a wonder to see and even more fun to navigate. No cars or even bicycles can cross the city, so you have to enjoy on foot, which allows you to take in impressive architecture, explore quiet canals and bump into locals in tiny passageways.

 View from the Rialto Bridge, Venice
View from the Rialto Bridge

After four beautiful days in the Most Serene Republic, I came away with a feeling of awe. I encourage you to visit as it’s a top destination for good reason. As climate change causes sea level rise, Venice’s floating illusion may not last. Get there soon, and try a few tips and lessons from my trip.

Traveling Simply: For the Budget

Venice is known to be an expensive city. At first, I thought it was tourist-trap inflation, but after arriving, I realized the challenges and costs of living in a place that floods nearly a third of the year and where everything has to be carried by hand or trolley. With this in mind, the prices are fairer, but they are still high. I discovered that, with a little planning, you can still enjoy the city on a budget.

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Meat and Potatoes: On Gratitude and Priviledge

Meat and Potatoes: On Gratitude and Priviledge

The other day I was walking home when a woman standing outside of my building stopped me and asked for help. She had a kind face that was toughened from what seemed to be a difficult life. She spoke to me in Hungarian asking for money or food, but then translated to the internationally understood hand signals for these essentials. I repeated, “No, sorry” and “Nem, bocsánat” and moved to walk past her and into my building. When people ask me for either, I never give cash directly, but if I have some food with me, I’m happy to share. Having none and thinking of the work I wanted to get done that afternoon I was about to continue on with my day.

Rakoszi Market vegetablesShe repeated that international sign for food, and then gestured to her belly. Only then I realized that she was quite pregnant, maybe five or six months. At that moment, I also pulled out my iPhone to stop the podcast I was enjoying. The two movements combined reminded and humbled me of my incredible luck in being born to a loving, wealthy (by world standards, not North American ones), Canadian family. I tucked away my iPhone and mustered my minor Hungarian to offer to buy some food for her at a nearby restaurant.

We walked together down the street. We continued to talk and negotiate in broken English and broken Hungarian, her  “hús” (meat), “krumpli” (potatoes) and me “nem pénz” (in my poor Hungarian the words ‘no’ and ‘money’, though it should really be something like nincs pénz, but I’m learning). She shook her head at the Gyros place (fair enough), and we continued to the corner grocery store.

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Moving: My Two Questions to Sift ….Stuff

Moving: My Two Questions to Sift ….Stuff

Since I signed my first lease 9 years ago, I’ve moved twelves times, including my most recent jaunt. In the same year I signed that first lease (on adulthood), The Weakerthans released their album Reunion Tour with one of most thoughtful odes to moving. This song beautifully portrays the feeling of leaving an old apartment behind, moving to new spaces and places, a time perfectly poised to push you into reflection.

This September 1st, Derek and I moved into a lovely new apartment. We shuffled the move around a trip to Canada, myself leaving early to help get ready for #aaronandbecca2016, while Derek, slowly but surely, biked our belongings in small boxes and awkward loads across the inner city from one furnished apartment to another. I returned to do only a final sweep and unpack into our new abode.

Moving, though a royal pain, is one of my favourite opportunities. It’s the easiest time of the year to practice a minimalist lifestyle. I strive to live a simple lifestyle with varying levels of success, but I am most successful during an apartment move. Every time I move, I have to sift through all the things I’ve collected over that year or two. Particularly with furnished apartments, the items I move can generally be labeled ‘stuff’. Because moving is such a pain, it’s a great time to make a break with that stuff that doesn’t deserve the sweat required to shuttle it to a new place.

Duna view
Duna view between the old and new.

My Two Questions

Most recently, I’ve been using a butchered but reasonably effective version of the KonMari Method. I, like a lot of people, have as much emotional attachment to items from the memories and people associated with them, as the physical usefulness of them. Both emotional and utilitarian values are important to me, and my most treasured items have a combination of the two factors. So, in determining if I keep an item, I first ask ‘Does it bring me joy?’ and ‘Do I use it?’.

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