Dalat, as Seen via Human Beings

Dalat Roadside

(Including this, which was one of my favorite shots in the city, for some reason)

I spent a couple of nights up in Dalat (returning a couple days ago to Saigon, where I am now) and really enjoyed it. The two nights might not have been enough for the average traveler, as there are countless activities and restaurants and cafes (oh, the cafes! My god!) to explore, but for me it was just enough. I stayed at ZEN Cafe, located about 1.5km from the city center, a small French villa built 70 years ago featuring hardwood floors and exquisite gardens. The German and Vietnamese-owned inn/hotel/thing kept me satisfied and rested throughout my entire stay. I loved it. The peace and quiet. The laid-back pace of life. The entire thing was a perfect experience for traveling alone.

So what did I do when in Dalat? I did a lot, actually. I explored the town. I followed up on recommendations and TA-highly-rated establishments. I walked around. A lot. My feet actually hurt for the first time since I can remember from general walking! That’s not a bad problem, by the way. I also took one of those Easy Rider tours (who knows how official this one was; I was approached at the bus station and Peter (Binh) gave me a ride to the guest house and then took me out for coffee and the next day we had a great customized tour together). I think the impetus to choose one of these tours to fill half a day in Dalat was important: I needed to get into the countryside, get on the road, and I wanted to take pictures of it all.

Unfortunately I don’t have enough free time to edit the lighting on these pictures, and as the days I was in Dalat (except for the last couple of hours there) were all overcast, the pictures might not look “beautiful,” but I’ve tried to include some below that focus on the risks I took in taking pictures of people. I find it hard to take pictures of people in Southeast Asia. It’s a stereotypical approach, one that many professional and art photographers take when they visit “developing countries” in general: capture the spirit of the place via portraits. But I’ve always been incredibly nervous of taking pictures of people. It’s not that I’ve ever been yelled at or frowned at for taking pictures of faces and bodies, but it feels slightly exploitative. I suppose it will get easier as I keep doing it, and I will always feel like I am exploiting just a bit, but perhaps the cost is worth it? More on that later, hopefully. Now, for the pictures!


Early morning. A girl stands and waits for this store to open.


Workers construct a new road.


A man carries goods to where? A market? A store?


Hand-carving the patterns of the sidewalk.


Path construction and repairs on the Lake of Sighs.


Sighing, perhaps? At the Lake of Sighs.


A lone fisherman. I did not see anyone fishing catch anything.


A man’s daughter practices her moto posing skills.


A tourist walks, head down, through the Dalat market.


More deliveries along the main road through Dalat.


The pensive stare back.


This man cooked a mean pork BBQ for breakfast.


While eating my pork BBQ for breakfast, the pork for tomorrow’s breakfast was dropped off.


Taking a break to make a call.


Working at a flower garden.


Chiseling the granite.


More plantation work.


A roadside Vietnamese wedding.


Immediately after I took this, the girl smiled and waved at me.


At the silkworm plantation.


It actually wasn’t that hot inside this silk factory.


The man behind me bringing in a load of silkworm cocoons.


Moto mirror selfie.


Produce delivery.


This machine takes the skin off coffee beans.


Coffee! For everyone!


The best Spongebob clothing I’ve ever seen.


Self portrait in Crazy House


A balloon vendor


Blistered and Cut-Up Feet and the New Hydration (Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam)


Ho Chi Minh City. The name has a pulse and brings to mind the an urban landscape with its own unique rhythm. The last time I was here in 2013, I didn’t know what to think, was fairly overwhelmed, and though not disappointed, I did find myself wanting more. Now I have returned, the first major international city to reunite with, and I am alone.

I spent the day doing things (and purposely not doing other things) to give me a taste of Saigon I had not encountered before. For one, I followed Jason Conger’s traveling lead by pacing myself. I have provide my trip with significant space to chill out, rest, relax, and not spend the time seeking out activities. So far, so good. I have managed to cover a lot of ground without being stressed about “seeing everything.” Again, it helps that I have been here once before.

My day trip had one destination: be at the British consulate by noon to meet Dede for lunch. Dede is my good friend from the old days in Cambodia. We met randomly nearly three times before we realized we worked near each other. Then we started hanging out. She’s from Ho Chi Minh City but has extensive travel experience. She’s also the only person in HCMC that I have stayed in touch with, and I had to catch up over some food.

I started the day walking away from my tiny guest house in the backpacker area (Bui Vien) and grabbed a coffee and a mini banh mi from Highlands Coffee. With the help of my GPS on my phone (even without a data plan, GPS works well here), I was able to find my way walking north/northeast. I cut through Công viên 23 tháng 9 and got up to the park located near the Reunification Palace, Tao Dan Park. It was still early enough to witness some great martial arts and aerobic exercise activity going on. I didn’t linger, but walked around at a steady pace, admiring people milling about in the relatively cool morning, and the magnificent power of nature Vietnam’s managed to sustain in such a bustling metro:


From the main park, I walked around the Palace (I didn’t really feel like going in, so I skipped it–another reason to come back, I suppose!) and kept going toward Công viên 30-4. It was around here I was approached by a shoe shining guy, a young man who spoke pretty good English. He really wanted to clean my shoes for a dollar, and I remember the desperation of some people in tourist areas throughout the region. I really did not want my shoes cleaned–mostly because they aren’t shoes, but Chaco sandals that can’t be shined. So I kept saying no, as you do, and went on my way.

Cutting up Phạm Ngọc Thạch, I encountered a lovely pool. It was a big pool. A strangely designed pool. An empty pool. There were school children walking around everywhere. A lot of recent graduates in their robes. People were getting photos taken. I took photos and walked on, smiling at random people, not really talking much. I looked up how to say “hello” in Vietnamese. I looked up “thank you” as well. I practiced even if silently mouthing was the most I could get out of me. The tonal qualities make it a bit awkward to get the subtleties down right without outright shouting the words, which is obviously awkward for me.


Trekking on, I continued and reached Công viên Lê Văn Tám, or Van Tam Park, which Dede would later tell me had nothing in it. I found some things: a beautiful white sculpture. A family playing badminton. Respite within the shade. These things were good to know, good to see. I’m glad I had had a chance to check it out, as most tourists probably won’t ever find it.


I was ultimately heading toward what is known as the Jade Pagoda. I kept focused on thinking about how I could take pictures and look at the “world of Vietnam” through a lens that was different than the first. I suppose the awe and crazed differences that are so distracting when you first encounter Asia die down a little bit with subsequent returns. They don’t disappear entirely, but they do dim a little. I used the opportunity to take risks in taking photos of more people up close, slow down and take videos of the traffic and the landscape, and analyze architecture, advertising, and daily life. Vietnam really is a fascinating place. It doesn’t have the elegance of scale that Bangkok has (the tall buildings are few and far between, as opposed to the prominent NYC-esque skyline of the latter), but it is sprawling, and ripe with life.

The Jade Pagoda was slightly disappointing. I had heard it was amazing from various TA reviews, and I put a lot of faith into that. Perhaps with a guide I would have found the experience more enjoyable, but alas, I did not have a guide, and I found the temple small and lacking in mind-boggling uniqueness. Well, almost lacking. The temple has what appears to be a gazillion turtles in one of its pools:


The smell of incense left behind, and my feet significantly blistered at this point, I realized that roughly an hour of walking had led to my need to rehydrate. They say, the anonymous they, that one traveling in a very hot and humid environment should avoid heatstroke by not over-consuming liquids. I think most balance that out by drinking lots of beer, which hydrates and dehydrates at the same time. Choosing not to drink in Vietnam, I instead chose to actually drink water but only once in a while. While my body wasn’t (and isn’t, as of this writing) ready to embrace Southeast Asia’s climate just yet, it has been logical in its intake of water.

I ended up stopping by this very small shop that advertised fresh honey juice (whatever that means) with pictures of what appeared to be oranges on large signs. I went inside and asked for orange juice and the reply was, as expected, in the negative. They didn’t understand my language. I didn’t know their language. I pointed at a random item on the menu, which looked like a green tea latte, and awaited my beverage. What was returned was a sickly sweet and medicine-like chalky iced drink that tastes like a combination of generic chemicals and something very vegetable, backed by lots and lots of sugar. At first I choked it down, but then, as it got diluted by the ice, it became very tolerable.

I would later ask Dede what it was I consumed, but she had no clue. Apparently there are just as many types of drinks in Vietnam as one thinks there are. Maybe you, dear reader, has an idea?


It was around this time I had to make a decision: walk around aimlessly through endless waves of traffic for another hour before getting lunch with Dede, or visit the zoo and botanical gardens. I stopped in a temple/museum adjacent to the zoo and looked at the zoo’s price: 50,000 dong, or $2.5. I wasn’t going to be losing much if I went in. I went in. The first thing I noticed was a panda. I took a selfie and sent that off to Natasha later on in the day.

Then I visited the bonsai garden, which was absolutely fantastic, but unfortunately lacking in its signage. If only they had put proper signs up to describe what are now the best bonsai trees I’ve ever seen (and I’ve seen quite a few, actually). I would have loved to know the specific names of these bonsais, as well as the names of their growers. Is that the word for a caretaker of a bonsai?


Other highlights of the children-packed zoo and gardens? Elephants, a white tiger, orangutan (these scared me as much as I though they would, having read the horror stories about people getting mauled by them in the jungle; the ones in this cage looked like they could absolutely obliterate a human being at any point in time), scarlet ibises, and lemurs. The zoo had a significant lack of barriers which surprised me. Obviously it made sense to keep the exhibits open-air, since most of the species were most likely more accustomed to the humid air anyway, but knowing that Asiatic black bear, or that giraffe, was on the other side of a 1-meter-wide moat-like gap kept me a little startled. So different from USA.

Stumbling around had built my appetite. I walked to the destination of Dede’s work place and after a joyful reuniting, we both walked on to Pho 24, a chain that I remember enjoying multiple times in Cambodia. There’s a subtlety about pho that I haven’t quite been able to decipher yet. Dede swore that the pho at Pho 24 in Vietnam is better than Cambodia, but I honestly couldn’t tell he difference. It all tasted heavenly to me. After an hour of talking and catching up, I walked Dede back to her work and then ventured forward. I walked down the fancy Dong Khoi Street, “famous” for its shopping (at least on TA). I took a dip into the Vincom shopping center and, as I suspected, there wasn’t anything there for me. It appears that even the idea of the “shopping mall” in Asia has lost its exotic appeal. I wonder what else on this trip will be uninteresting.


Dong Khoi ends at the river front, and there is a park there, but you have to play Frogger and nearly be destroyed just to see it. Unfortunately there’s nothing much to see. The charm of the Mekong from Phnom Penh is not recaptured here. Tankers float by, and the water is flowing nicely, but everything about the Saigon River lacks charm. I could foresee a Saigon in the future that has created an amazing waterfront, but who knows if that will ever happen. Dodging sketchy offers for boat rides, I got myself over to the walking street (Nguyễn Huệ) and that’s when the dark storm came. Rainy season, finally!

Jumping from awning to awning, I slowly made my way back toward the guest house. I stopped in a couple of book stores (including one that I had been in with Jason two years ago). Everything about the experience was wonderful, though hot and wet, of course. I managed to take this selfie while waiting for the rain to stop:


It was pretty easy to take compelling videos of traffic in the rain, and hopefully I’ll get a chance to post some of that footage in a later post. For now, just imagine a lot of poncho-laden individuals and resulting puddles.

After all was said and done, I stopped and bought a strawberry cream crepe and a Vietnamese coffee at a Tous Les Jours, and went back to the hotel. I spent time emailing and passed out for about an hour before Dede arrived to pick me up. We ended up going to this fantastic place called The Secret Garden, where we enjoyed a lot of authentic Vietnamese food. We were joined by Dede’s boyfriend, Patrick (Padraig–he’s Swedish), and we talked about all manner of things movies, works, and even priviledge and the death of black people in America. All in all, it was a great time hanging out.


After dinner, Dede took me for a little night cruise around town and helped me get my ticket to Dalat. It was very soon after my return to my room that I passed out. Today I woke up early. I am going to stop and get some noodles for breakfast, and coffee, before it’s time to catch that bus.

Touching Down in Deep Humidity (Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam)

street life bun vien ho chi minh city

After nearly 24 hours of continuous travel, I have reached Vietnam. The travels could not have been derailed any more than they were. My original itinerary: Seattle to San Francisco to Hong Kong to Saigon. My first flight was canceled due to mechanical issues (apparently it was the same plane that was canceled a day earlier, and apparently it was much to my benefit that I got to the airport so early so as to get rescheduled to the next plane). On board the next plan to SF, I would still make the connection to Hong Kong (but by a hair). I explained my situation to the United employee at the main desk, who bumped by seat up to an upgrade (not First Class, but approximately 15 rows closer to the front) so I’d get off the plane earlier and have a better chance at making that flight. All was lost, however, when the delayed plane, presumably the same exact aircraft that had the earlier canceled flight, was approximately 1.5 hours late in taking off. It was around 1 hour delayed when I woke up from the nap in my upgraded seat and the captain announced people could get off the plane to get food, or rebook. I decided to “deplane” and then get rebooked. This was a wise decision on my part: I talked with the amazing desk person, Mika, who got me the original upgrade, and after about fifteen minutes of her artistically figuring it out, I managed to get a transfer over to Asiana (the Korean airline) that would put me through Seoul/Incheon and then to Saigon. Glorious! And the cherry on top of the cake: I would get to Saigon 1.5 hours ahead of the previous route. When I got to the desk at the South Satellite terminal of SeaTac, the Asiana desk person, who was just as sweet and helpful as Mika, got me aisle seats for both planes. On top of all these delays? A couple meal vouchers that kept me running and in high hopes via coffee and baked goods.

Having been on Asiana, I was not surprised by the amazing quality of the entire flight experience. In fact, I enjoyed it so much this time around not via surprise but via contrast to a recent trip on Delta to NY. Though Delta is trying to pick up the slack of USA airlines with new technology and “experience”-based flying, they still fall short. Asiana’s seats are some of the most spacious. Their food is fantastic and free whiskey is actually a little more valuable than one thinks when the day is filled with stressful flying. All the free movies, music, and games built in to each of the seats is amazing as well. It’s hard to describe the “Asian” experience of Asiana, but I will say it’s similar to being on an Air Asia flight, and a China Air flight. Anyway, long story short: if you’re American and haven’t traveled East, then you haven’t traveled. You don’t know what you’re missing. It’s kind of existentially break-through.

I only had about fifteen minutes between getting off in South Korea and getting on the plane to Saigon, but I will comment that the entire process was smooth and enjoyable. Maybe because I’ve done it before? On the previous plane I watched such mediocre hollywood hits as Jupiter Rising, Monster University, and Seventh Son. I fell asleep to Exodus: Gods and Kings. I read bits and pieces of Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual which is delightful and makes great travel reading. It’s one of six books I brought on this trip. I listened to Billie Holiday. There was, needless to say, a lot of sleeping.

Getting through security, passport control, and customs at the airport in Saigon was also very easy, and I think it was so enjoyable because I didn’t have to wait in any huge lines. I do remember all of my previous times in Vietnam being counterpointed with Jason. This time around, I had myself to keep myself company. Me alone with my thoughts. The taxi ride was familiar but silent. Inevitably we got to Bizu Hotel District 1, located right in the heart of the backpacking district, the same general location Jason and I stayed in when we came here 2 years ago. Nothing has changed, though the young Vietnamese kids hanging out drinking and partying look even younger than I remember. I picked up some smokes and some water, and in the course of doing a short walk to stretch my legs, lasting 15 minutes, the familiar shouts and calls for massages, marijuana, moto drivers, and beer specials washed over me in numbness. It’s my goal to not do any drinking while in Vietnam. We’ll see if I can hold true to that desire. I look forward to taking it easy and having a slow pace that meets with the humidity and the long, frantic trails of the tiniest ants in all the world.

Tomorrow I’ll be going out with my real camera, taking pictures of parks, pagodas, and other sights that I missed the first time around. I’ll also be meeting my dear friend Dede, who I regularly spent time when we both worked in Cambodia last year. Hopefully I’ll still enjoy the coffee with condensed (sweet) milk, the baguettes, and the noodles all on the horizon. Hopefully I’ll continue to stay active and engaged with my friends in the USA via G-chat, Facebook, and Whatsapp. Vietnam, though blocking Twitter, offers free international texting via T-Mobile. It’s these small amenities I didn’t have the first time visited that are truly making this experience different in subtle though alarming ways.

And we’re off! (Seattle, WA)

greg bem 01 - Seattle

My travels back to Asia start with Seattle, where I’m now “from.” I’ve been “from Seattle” for five years now, and I look forward to continue to be “from Seattle.”

I also look forward to travelling alone extensively. This is going to be the first time I’m on the beaten and unwalked paths by myself–a feat the many can’t claim they’ve ever done. Though I have travelled around North America in various ways, I typically enjoy my time with others. This is the first time I don’t have a dedicated other with me.

I also think it’s interesting to ponder what’s being left behind. No one is 100% ready to leave a given situation. I am excited to go to Cambodia once again, and the surrounding region, but part of me does not want to leave. Things I’ll be leaving behind include:

  • My partner, Natasha.
  • My room mate, Emiliana, and her two chihuahua puppies, Paco and Cookie.
  • My family, on the East Coast.
  • The plethora of other friends that surround my life and make it special.
  • The two libraries I work at, LWTech and North Seattle College.
  • The poets, writers, and artists throughout Seattle I can call “collaborators.”
  • My car and my bicycle, the latter I didn’t use very much recently.
  • The fine, fine Northwest summer.
  • Relatively fast Internet.
  • The Witcher 3.

Fortunately, I’ve got some good things on my plate coming my way:

  • Six nights in Vietnam, including 3 nights in Dalat.
  • A lovely job with the Wildlife Conservation Society.
  • Six books I’ve been meaning to read for months (a couple for years, actually).
  • Rendezvousing with countless friends I have missed since I left almost exactly a year ago.
  • A performance at Meta House.
  • The opportunity to run and learn from library and poetry workshops.
  • A visit from two very special American friends in late August.
  • Hopefully travels to and through Laos, and perhaps another stop in Singapore.

I really do not know what to expect. Part of me wants to take the tourist approach down a notch and simply enjoy my time in the sweltering heat. I’d like to mosey along, taking pictures, spending hours a day reading, not necessarily charged with “go, go, go” but I know this will be difficult to accomplish. My inner nature is, after all, significantly charged and inspired by cramming as much as possible in. Can I, perhaps, learn to chill out on this trip? Can I learn to savor it? After all, it’s going to be very short.

As I know there are going to be several following me, I will try to post to this regularly, and link out when I post externally. I do welcome all comments. If not via WordPress, then over email, Facebook, or otherwise. I feel the natural way to counteract any loneliness through solo travel is probably through the Internet. Hopefully I will get a chance to write a quick post during Hong Kong; otherwise, it will be in the safe confines of the first Vietnamese guest house I stay in.

The Great 2015 Return to Cambodia!


I hardly know who is still tracking this blog, but I have good news! I happened to luck out on my schedule this year, and on June 22 I will be boarding a plane in Seattle and heading to Ho Chi Minh City, where I will be spending six nights (technically a few in Dalat), and then heading back to Cambodia for the summer break.

How did this happen? It starts with being a librarian. As I work for two community colleges (North Seattle College (NSC) and Lake Washington Institute of Technology (LWTech)), I am working on the quarter-based system. I am technically a librarian at the latter, and their contract for me, a part time contract that will be renewed in the fall, does not cover summer quarter. North Seattle College’s contract does cover summer, but the summer quarter is incredibly limited. I ended up getting my good friend Molly Mac to temporarily (and potentially permanently) take over the North gig and my amazing room mate is letting me keep all my stuff in my apartment at a very small rate. And so I’m off to ‘Bodia for a few months until I resume work at LWTech!

Once in Cambodia, I will have a lot of catching up to do. It should be easy from my relatively-centralized apartment in the Duan Penh area of Phnom Penh, near the TeaHouse Asian Urban Resort:

I look forward to bringing this blog back to sharing everything that is going on with my life. I will have a job, I will reconvene with old friends, hopefully meet new friends, and, of course, enjoy my fair share of swimming pools. Also, it will be monsoon season, which will be a drastic (and welcome) change from the relative mild heat of the Pacific Northwest. Here are some things I will be doing:

  • Spending time meeting up with my dear friend Dede in HCMC.
  • Exploring Dalat for the first time.
  • Meeting up with all my old friends who are still in Phnom Penh.
  • Working an 8-week information management contract in Phnom Penh (and hopefully a field office in Mondulkiri) for the Wildlife Conservation Society.
  • Holding a poetry workshop on collaborative writing for Nou Hach.
  • Holding two workshops for librarians and library staff for the Cambodian Library Association.
  • Working with sound producer Warren Daly (of Invisible Agent) and poet Scott Bywater on a two-night epic performance to be held at Meta House.
  • Getting back into the vibe of going to pools, enjoying fresh food, and feeling the pulsations of air conditioning, and watching the streets flood and the lightning flicker on the horizon.
  • Enjoying the return of my American friend Tanya and the first visit of my American friend Hailey in late August/early September.
  • Potentially traveling throughout Laos with some good friends in September before heading back to the USA!

When will I return? I’m scheduled to fly back on the 26th, to start work on the 28th. Let’s hope everything goes to plan!

As for updates along the way, I plan on using this blog for my primary means of documenting my travels, work, and pictures. However, I am now a contributing writer for Queen Mob’s, and plan on writing about pools and weekend adventures there. I will also be using my Cambodian-based Twitter account for relevant tweeting. If you are in Cambodia and want to meet with me, send me a message to my email, or post on Facebook, or simply comment on this post and I’ll get back to you soon!

Living in Cambodia Part Two: More Reflections


I’m safely back in Seattle, USA. White clouds loom over me thickly. Green trees are in every corner. The air is brisk and biting. I have to wear layers. I have to squint to see through the brightness. There is no sweat. There is noise, lots of noise, in the restaurants and bars. There is space and quiet outside. The roads are smooth. The hills are steep. The cars are many, and they are orderly. It stays light out until 9 or 9:30 at night.

It has been a difficult transition back to this town, this place I called home for three years. In many ways, I sincerely and severely miss Phnom Penh. I miss the heat, I miss the crowds, the busy streets, the regular cycles of day and night. I miss the dust. I miss the dirty streets. I miss the constant movement, the constant activity. In some ways, I miss the lack of shade and the unbearable lightness of urban sunlight. I miss the friends I knew, and the many faces I didn’t. I miss the fruit and the meat and the fish and the strange vegetables. Obviously I miss the cheap food and the cheap cost of living.

But here I am under the many conveniences of American life. I’m once again back in the landscape of the fancy, where I can get Starbucks 5 minutes from every location, where I can get in a friend’s car and just drive. There’s freedom here. But there’s so much more, so much more uncertainty.

When you first live abroad, you think, “Wow, there are all of these things I took for granted where I come from.” You’re not only surrounded by the perspectives of the majority (in my case, the Cambodians), but also the perspectives of all the other minorities–Australians, Europeans, South Americans, Canadians, other Asians–and everything comes together into a new range of perspectives, a new melting pot, that is absolutely fantastic as it is horrifying. The “island” of your homeland, of your home country, becomes one that is fantastically strange. “Oh, wow, Americans are loud, and we use credit cards to buy almost everything” are a couple statements you might make when you get into the superficial contrasts in culture.

When you return home, you start to see the deeper differences in the world around you. You start to project everything you came to value in the foreign experience onto everything that surrounds your homeland. You start to realize the gaps between the two. You start to think about what was missing from your previous life. In Cambodia, for example, collectivity and community and individual sacrifice is normal under professional, family, and personal contexts. There is a degree of “giving” that is unmatched by many people in many subcultures of America. Though there are certainly “giving” people here, and very, very kind people, that they are not the norm makes them stand out, sure, but makes them seem flanked by the majority ideology in a landscape of supreme individualism and, to be drastic, selfishness.


Even the language of “I” (using “I statements”) was completely different over there. Among Westerners and Cambodians alike, talking in conversations was normally inverted. Statements involved commenting on others before commenting on yourself. The “you” statement (“You actually talked to him?”) versus the “I” statement (“I can’t believe you talked to him”) seems simple but is foundationally different, and of course I grew completely self-conscious of my own linguistic behavior and adjusted accordingly. And since being back I’ve constantly noticed the self-centrism in communications. It’s a good thing, because it means I can continue to make myself less self in an attempt to translate my previous comforts of community into the communities I previously known.

There is something maddening about the face of despair and disease in the USA that I don’t remember “seeing” as clearly in Cambodia. From the drunks standing in and around bars, to those pour souls screaming on the streets, to the silent, defaced individuals working at the cafes, there is a distance between individuals here that unnerves me. Some of these elements of mental health and social behavior are greater in Seattle than other areas of the country, I realize that, and it’s hard to make blanket/generalized statements, but they are visually noticeable and, in many cases, difficult to deal with. I’m sure most of my friends in Cambodia, and myself too, had extreme disparities in mental health, but there was a general concern for happiness and connectivity, even desperately, but still normal-seeming, that kept me and my crew together in an act of energy, trust, and reliance. Did that exist for me in Seattle, before? Perhaps it simply wasn’t as obvious to see, even if it did exist. Certain illuminations occur when we least expect them, make us turn over stones and reflect on previously-hidden realities of life.


Cold in the night, it’s been a bit hard, clutching my blankets, to not think of the smiling faces of those who were in my life, both temporarily and consistently, during my time in Cambodia. Penhleak, Kakrona, Yenda, Daen, Andrea, Stephanie, Antoine, Jialing, Eitan, Kristina, Borey, Sok Lak, Vongseng, Sros, Linda, Heng, Khiang, Kara, Tana, Nary, Sokunthea, Ratana, Huy Eng, Saren, Naro, Seila, Try, Emanuel, Eric, Terry, Margaret, Kolap, Wanna, Dana, Chheangly, Chakriya, James, Phally, Soknea, Sok, and all the others, these were the people who allowed me to rediscover myself by leaving myself and entering their lives. The invitations were gradual and amazing. And unforgettable.

It’s difficult thinking about how experiences are different out here. It’s only been 48 hours and I’m not working and I’m living in a moment-to-moment space. I can’t imagine how it will be interacting with my family when I go back home, or how I will interact in working environments, but one of my major skills I’ve learned has been patience. There is so much patience required to switch from the Western to the Cambodian way of life: from tasks at work to meeting up with friends to enjoying a meal. There’s a reason lunch breaks are two hours long rather than 30 minutes. There’s a reason no one expects people to be exactly on time in any given circumstance, for a date or for a casual meeting. So many factors go into “barriers,” where barrier shouldn’t be considered a negative, but rather simply a push and pull keeping people from being so abrupt, so rigid in their daily lives. It’s hard to explain, but I’ve already faced difficulties with impatience, with promptness. I foresee them continuing.

Over the next five days I’ll be perusing Seattle and, when I can, posting new thoughts about new differences I’ve encountered. Then I’ll be in Maine, where my goal will be to write significantly about my many friendships and interactions in Cambodia. I hope to write something, a long essay, or book, that can accurately illustrate what life in Cambodia is like today, something most people probably haven’t a clue about. (I already had to deal with more than two Pol Pot references since being back, which confirms said suspicions.) After a month in Maine, I’ll be driving across the country. All of these activities are so starkly different from my life in Cambodia that I hope they don’t overshadow the past 9 months completely. And yet, Cambodia instilled a sense of humbleness, sincerity, joy, and compassion within me that I don’t imagine will be easy to shrug off anytime soon.

Living in Cambodia: Some Reflections

Here is the first in what I hope is a series of posts on my time in Cambodia. I will be writing a final poem and some additional comments tomorrow, during my last day in the Kingdom of Wonder.

Clutching the bag

like the next corner

could be your next life.

Final days, final hours, final minutes, final moments. I’ve been in Cambodia for around eight and a half months and tomorrow at midnight I return back to the United States of America, from whence I came, from the last life I knew. And yet it will never be the last life, the same life, as Cambodia has provided so much insight, expanded me perspective gradually, fundamentally, impeccably. I will miss Cambodia and what it has taught me and what I have found as a new home, a new lifestyle, a new place of wonder in a Kingdom of Wonder.

I ache thinking about the rising sun

and how it will never be as hot

my skin will never shimmer this way.

I will miss the people most of all. The fantastic people who are all doing amazing things here. I will miss the writers, the teachers, the librarians, the artists, the psychologists, the developers, the dancers, and so on and so on. I will miss the opportunity to so easily look into the minds and worlds of so many different types of people. Through work, through volunteering, through a commitment to creativity, I have seen in my life a place filled with so much life, so much purpose, so much inquiry. Contrastingly different from previous states of nihilism and the annals of the voids of pretention I knew before, Cambodia has given me a glimmer of insight into a space where the have-nots have so much to find, care for, and explore.

Kick, push, kick, push.

The first time navigating the world of motos

on a single speed bicycle.

Risks. I will miss the risks. I will miss swerving out into traffic and nearly getting run over by the motorbikes and the SUVs and all manner of other crazed traffic that dominates the landscape. Risks. I will miss booking my schedule full with exhausting, potentially-heartbreaking meetings, where my experience and inexperience is not enough to find the answers to the problems I encounter. I will miss exploring and trying anyway. I will miss going into situations without the proper foundational knowledge and taking the risk that I can still make impact.

Judging from that pothole,

there has recently been a lot of rain,

and yet the sky is clear.

Cambodia might as well be labeled “land of uncertainty.” You can find surprises anywhere, but there is a particularly staggering degree of uncertainty and discovery here that never gets old, that continues to astound no matter where you are. I will miss it. I will miss it in its beautiful poetry. This poetic world we float through, new smells, new fumes, incredible vibrations and incredible patterns of images. Every moment, whether I was in the comfort of my room, enjoying conversations over beers or coffee with friends, or out traveling the dusty streets, I found myself being delightfully reminded that I could know nothing. For me, I never created a structure, a pretense that “order exists.” Despite my own relatively stable daily existence, I normalized the strange, the unknown, and the lack of patterns over the patterns themselves, in an attempt to unravel the mysteries surrounding me. Did it help to always be on the edge of my seat, become as shocked as often as possible?

There is no shade and so you will burn

but you will stop naysaying the flames.

You will grow to love the discomfort.

I have always felt some anxiety in Cambodia. Some degree of fear has touched me on a daily basis. From conversations to bargaining to sickness to my interpretations of the world around me to the potential to get robbed, even, my nerves grew startled and uncomfortable living here. But in many ways, these defense mechanisms slowly became tolerable, fine. I stopped losing sleep over it. But part of the love for Cambodia is in the fear. Because, like so many who have visited other places before me can attest, the idea of exotic can be found in the differences between what you know and are used to, and what you don’t know and might never fully know because, well, you’re always translating. As with language, eventually there is a point where you stop translating and your understanding is natural, internalized and smooth; however, as I have never learned a second language fluently, I cannot say anything more than this assumption. I can, however, comment that life did get easier, and many elements of daily life slowly became unconscious, slowly stopped invading me on a meta-analytical level. I stopped giving a damn about being cut off in traffic. I stopped worrying about getting sick when eating street food. I stopped caring so much about how much that tuk tuk ride would cost. I even stopped freaking out about money problems. Life slowly became “Cambodian” to me.

You will be as the statues are:

centered and observed,

though still, filled with joy and aging.

I think a lot of foreign people like Cambodia because you can be quite individual here. Despite all the collectivity going on with expats and local Cambodians, the pressure to conform simply doesn’t feel like pressure. You slowly become culturally sensitive (or not) and observe certain norms and engage in certain practices, but in many ways, that’s where it ends. From the junkie and the sex addict, to the God-driven missionary and development-driven NGO worker, to those remarkable unemployed folks who somehow manage to coast along in a deep sea of whatever it is they have, there is a place for you here. And nobody’s going to pop your bubble unless you want it to be popped. One of my first friends here enjoyed a lifestyle of extreme bliss and absolutely no employment for four or five months. Another friend was unemployed for almost a year. I’ve met travelers who have decided to just “stop by” for a few months without any larger ambition to contribute as an employee to any organization, or even as a freelancer. On the other end of the spectrum, there are those who are so driven by work (I’m guilty of this) that they have multiple jobs, and also provide consulting, and also volunteer and host events and activities, and can’t-stop-moving. There are those that come here during their retirement. There are those who are escaping something from where they came. There are those who are young and are looking for adventure and room to grow. There are those who are raising families out here. There are those that came for Cambodian love. There are those who have no idea what they’re doing. The fantastic elements of Cambodia is that it’s a land of personal opportunity.

What do you want to do? She asked.

All I know is I want to keep talking to you.

She looked at me like she’d heard it once before.

I found love in Cambodia. I told myself I wasn’t going to look for it, so perhaps it found me. On numerous occasions. Love transcended my greatest desires to stay focused on myself. And in staying focused on myself it was obvious that love was unavoidable. Love has come in such varieties here. People who have loved me, people I have directed love toward. An intricate exchange, a fantastic gaze. There was the first friend I slowly knew would forever be more than that to me. There was the gang of friends I would never stop thinking about, would attempt to spend time with every day. There was the woman I knew only briefly, who I created the perfect art piece with, only to watch it be destroyed, because we did not deserve it. There was the friend I abandoned after learning to know and love for so long. There was the other friend who somehow managed to love me and then immediately stop. There were the people I loved like family. There were the people I loved like lovers. There were the people who were best friends. There were the people who came and went but always branded an image.

She countered my doubt with another message.

“And be at peace with loneliness.”

My glass as empty as the sky, my lips spread open in a smile.

I have always been lonely and have regularly felt alone despite the countless faces and voices and communities existing to support me wherever I have been. I have always been maniacal, the door of my sanity slightly ajar. It’s been that way in Cambodia, too, though in many ways, Cambodia life has been like university life. It has been a source of personal growth and education, one concentrated. In many ways, the people that entered and left my life were all in similar positions in life, similar open positions that allowed them to ask big questions and find answers, great and small, in response. I spent the first half of my time in Cambodia living alone in an apartment on the ground floor of a quasi-residential apartment in a shady street in Phnom Penh’s south end. I then moved into an apartment, also in the south end, to the west, near Toul Tom Pong, or Russian Market. I lived with two wonderful roommates, a Belgian working for an NGO, and a Polish freelancer. In many ways, I saw my own loneliness confronted on a regular basis by invitations from friends and loved ones who were always around the corner, always excited about life, always willing to do things. In many ways, the promptness of social living has been different than any other space I’ve lived in, but perhaps it’s because I’ve finally started letting the friends come before me.

“Will you come back?”

I really want to. There was a cool breeze tickling my arms.

“You’re going to be missed by a lot of people.”

My life has been a life of movement. I have put significant thought into “settling down” since I came here, despite how a life in Cambodia often provides the conflicting viewpoints of people settling and people in flux (as does anywhere else, of course, but particularly so here, with significantly strict cultural norms and the entering and exiting of so many individuals from foreign lands). I have thought of what settling can do for me. What can happen if you downsize certain elements of your life? What can happen if you focus, put greater attention into certain ideas, values, systems, projects, works? What can happen if you slow down a bit? Will that help life? Yesterday I watched five movies and packed my bags, getting rid of a lot of my things, preparing a lot of clothes to be donated. It felt relaxing to invest so much time into being an observer, rather than a creator, the “active principle” in the situation. Some of my favorite moments in Cambodia have been those on a beach, or at a pool, where every other activity in life vanished. Other favorite moments were on the dance floor, where I could transform into the crazed dancing dude I am. Our most highly-prized inner natures are sometimes those that we don’t talk about that often, those we reserve for the unique experiences that inspire them.

Difference comes in many forms.

Count the types of mangos grown.

Beggars and the elite dance on the same streets.

Surprisingly, I thought a lot about American poverty while I was in Cambodia. Poverty and class struggles and economic struggles exist everywhere, of course. In many ways, my time here has been similar to my time in Philadelphia; however, I have spent a lot of time thinking about how I can make a difference, how my actions help (and don’t) and I have lived with societal difficulties much easier here. I don’t love the struggle here. I don’t want it to continue to exist. But I respect the history and the structures that need to be changed and I believe in the many people who want change here. It will come in due time. As you come to know more people in Cambodia, and you realize that many people have found joy in their life despite their shitty situations, a certain degree of respect for the culture grows. Perhaps I have developed a complex here since I have access to those who are well-to-do and those that are in poverty. Obviously I have the privilege to move around and see the world from many angles, like a god, but perhaps having such mobility has also allowed me to learn and continue to be here without growing incredibly depressed and fleeing due to my inability to cope (that’s what happened in Philly). One of my first friends here, a tuk tuk driver, who invited me to see his world from the inside. Most days he only made enough to survive, and could only save $1/day. Another one of my first friends here owns a car and had a job that will most likely allow him to enter in and continue to live as a member of the “emerging middle class.” I have met teachers making hardly a living wage. I have met wildly successful business owners. I have met farmers. I have met garment factory workers. I have met poets and song writers. I have met visual artists. I have met barristas. I have met advocates and political champions. Everyone has expressed to me their critiques of Cambodia, and everyone has expressed a gratefulness for life here. I have enjoyed investigating happiness.

Your favorite pair of pants rip, so go put on new pants.

Your party’s playlist ends so download some new music.

Your life chapter ends so you go write the next one.

When I think about Cambodia and me, I think about it being too short. Less than a year in a place, I’ve been arguing since I got here, is not enough time. I’m grateful I had the chance to at least experience 8.5 months here. The experiences I’ve witnessed and the knowledge I’ve gained have incomparable to other chapters in my life. I am going to truly miss the life I’ve had in Cambodia, a lot, and I know I will return, but for now, this is simply the trajectory I have to live with. How one deals with transience, movement from one space to the next, is a difficult concept. At 28 years old, I haven’t the slightest clue about movement, except that I know I’ve done it before and that it was successful and fine and it will most likely be successful and fine again. People I’ve met who have lived around the world say that while it’s always hard moving, it’s also something that gets easier. I hope so. Travel and transience have always been inspiring and have provided significant insight into myself, and I can’t see myself stopping my movement around the world, even if I run out of money, or I get my limbs blown off. I’ll find a way. But moving from Cambodia back to the USA, which is so, so different will be a challenge. In many ways, I hope to retain as much as I’ve gained from Cambodia as I can once back to the Empire, and yet, I believe that a lot of the beliefs I’ve fostered here have been directly linked to the cultural contexts here, and thus I will need to really think about what life out here has been, and how I can translate my life here into the new contexts. Reverse culture shock will most likely shock me, as well, so I will plan on reflecting on that, too. But for the next 36 hours I have in the country, it will be about cherishing what I’ve already felt and experienced. Let the re-appropriation happen later.

More comments and reflections this afternoon and tomorrow. You can also check out my reflections on library work in Cambodia here.