Going Back to What I Remember

In the last 2 years I was in Cambodia around 2004 – 2005 there was an increase of young people vacationing from America, Europe and Australia with mix race or born from both Cambodian parents but are third generation immigrant who by law of natural birth are citizens of the country of their birth.

These young people started looking for where their parents are from and finding out more about where their bloodline originated.  From history books, we know that Cambodia was not a very happy place to be in the 70’s to the 90’s that is why many people migrated to other countries and started a new life there. While those that remain experienced and saw the transformation of their country into what it is now – a more vibrant country but like most developing countries still is riddled with social problems and political turmoil that somehow delay its development into a more competitive country globally.

As a foreigner working in the country I was obliged to read about the country’s history to better understand what I am getting myself into and how I should adapt to many things — culture primarily. At the same time, I am not short of people telling me more than what the books can tell me – my colleagues, whose been there longer than I am, the veteran development workers, the local staffs whose just as happy telling the story and speaking English and the people we treat – their stories were very real and cannot be captured by any other story tellers, amazing stories.

But however grim the stories are, it was not difficult to connect with the Khmer. I did not have difficulty adapting to the culture one because I was Asian myself plus being a newbie devworker I was like a sponge ready to listen and be astonished by everything I saw that time.  I was never made to feel any different by the people I encounter from work, the community and my household, that is one reason relationships I had there were all honest.

It is best to remember the happier side of the Country – the sites, the sound and the food.

Sothea with my dog Roxy

Sothea with my dog Roxy


Who doesn’t love Cambodian Curry made by hand by Sothea who was with me for the last 4 years I was there. She prepared them early because she wants the ingredients fresh and complete and cook it to perfection with rice noodles, fresh mint, basil and cucumber. It was hard to stop eating …

Ingredients: – Chicken breast .. 100g clean and cut into pieces – Khmer curry paste .. 3 table spoon – Sugar .. 1/2 table spoon – Coconut milk .. 5 table spoon – Carrot .. 1/4 pcs peeled and cut into dive – Sweet potato .. ½ pcs peeled and cut into dive – Onion .. ½ pcs – Long bean .. 1pcs clean and cut into short- Salt .. a pinch – Star Anis .. 4 pcs – Silmon .. 1pcs How to cook: Curry paste – Galangal .. 1pcs peel and slice – Turmeric root .. 2pcs peel and slice – Garlic .. 2pcs finely and chopped – Lemon grass .. 1pcs cut thin – Shallot .. 4pcs peel and chopped – kaffir lime leave .. 2pcs slice (Curry Paste: lemon grass, turmeric, galangal, and kaffir muss or blend into machine blend already just cut shallot and garlic)Heat the coconut milk in a pan put Khmer curry paste, sugar, sweet potato, carrot, onion, andlong bean cook for 10 minutes. Then put chicken and a bit water to moisten the ingredients and simmer for 20 minutes or until the vegetable and chicken well done. Cooking Time: 20 minutes

What about the Amok Fish dish served piping hot wrapped in banana leaves paired with fresh steamed rice and the variety of street foods and breakfast food you can find anywhere in Phnom Penh.

The grim side of sights would be the Killing Fields (Cheung Ek Museum) and the S-21 (Toul Sleng Genocide Museum) which I decided early in my years there to not go back to unless I have to … in my 6 years in Cambodia I only went there 2 or 3 times, the second time was when my parents visited me there. The next time I have to bring people there I declined to go in, instead I chill out at the Boddhi Tree café across the school gate.

My parents dwarfed by the trees and the doorway to one of temples in Angkor

My parents dwarfed by the trees and the doorway to one of temples in Angkor

Instead of staying in the city, there’s more than enough things to do and places to visit in the other provinces around the country. The second most visited place is Siem Reap where the famous Angkor Wat and hundreds other relics and temples are found. Angkor is the old capital of Cambodia which has been taken over by trees and decay until it was discovered to become one of the most magnificent archaeological find in South East Asia and was declared Unesco Heritage to be protected. The finds covered a vast land area but not all are possible to be visited because of there still are land mines the littered the countryside (read: Danger!! Mines!!)

Tourism had flourished and the country became more modern and people had more choices on what type of adventure they want to do. But the beauty of knowing the country before now is that everything was done the old-fashioned way … doing it back country-style and no instant connectivity!

Cambodia is one country you would love to go back to over and over because its laid back and its a very easy get-away especially when traveling Indochina or wanting a break from other countries. It is not as uptight as Vietnam and Laos, not as crazy as Saigon and Bangkok and still touted as cheap compared to its neighbor.

So I would understand those people back then to be wanting to stay – I heard many of them started their own organization, because it’s not hard to fall in love in Cambodia, and it’s not difficult to gain grounds and take roots here even if you were uprooted long time ago.

Weekly Posts – Digging Roots  


Danger!! Mines!!

When I took the job in Cambodia I didn’t know about land mines before. I have no idea of war except from the stories my parents told us when we were young and it was a kind of novelty because the story was told in a very light context to drill lessons about life to our young minds.

In Cambodia it’s different, you meet people and hear stories as if it just happened or for some it’s still happening, that it affects me and freezes me at the same time, others were knocked out they have to leave. I didn’t realize it will have that effect on me, I thought working in tertiary public hospital in my country prepared me to what I will see in another.

The history of Cambodia is heart wrenching … it was the Asian version of the holocaust  where the strong overpower the weak and they killed all those they perceived to challenge them – the intellectuals, the religious and the rich. They claimed they were creating a utopian egalitarian country was a farce, instead they created a wounded country that until I left in 2005 was still facing the consequence of the past and still claims 3 victims every day due to land mines mostly farmers and children. I hope now that has changed.

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Universal Sign for Landmines This sign littered the countryside of Cambodia that when you pass through you should not stray off the cleared road

The Pol Pot regime called them their perfect soldier … they lie and wait patiently for their victims, waiting to mime not kill their enemies – no they are not that bad, they don’t kill people OR SO THEY CLAIM, but miming people are worst and the consequence of it multiplied ten, hundred folds.

I have no recent information how much of the country has been demined but the effort has been huge to clear the country of those pesky little pretentious contraptions and reclaim arable lands and roads for the people to use, for the children to play. Cambodia was first among those country in the past but I don’t know now, a lot of effort has been done, even Angelina Jolie pitched in giving attention to the work of mine groups in demining.

The long term consequence of living in a country littered with land mines are having people with disability due to it … it achieved it’s purpose – it mimed many people during the war making them dependent on others and live miserable lives for most. Remember too that only a fraction of the victims are soldiers, most of the people I met are regular villagers, fathers, mothers, grandparents, innocent children, all of them just wanted to go back to the lives taken from them and yet got blown off and rendered disabled.

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Young man on wheelchair. He has spinal cord injury because shrapnel lodges in his back when he stepped on a mine in his village.

Meeting them, working with them makes it all too real to say “I am just here to work” … it really grew on me and it affected me without me knowing but still I have to compartmentalize my feelings to get on going everyday. I remember we had one volunteer physiotherapist from Oslo, she’s in her last year of school and wanted to experience working in countries like Cambodia and experience life in developing countries she said. Everyday that we were together I have to pull her out of her cubicle because she’s always making a scene in front of her client – she was crying every time she sees a child with paralyzed legs because of Polio or a person with no legs or women bringing children born with some form of congenital deformities. It was hard for her and the realization that she’s living in a glass cage (her words not mine) made it all the worst, she only stayed for two weeks instead of four and I haven’t heard from her after. Another was a guy, another physio from another western country, he stayed for two months instead of just one, he liked it so much that he said he will stop working in his hospital and seek out work like mine. He said he realized his work in the hospitals in his country was not as fulfilling as working in “our” setting – he said he started to hate treating neck pains and whinny clients when he can treat those that really needs them and with less paper work.

This kind of work affects you … moves you. It even grows on you and like I said in the past my 6 months plan became 6 years and counting in other places.

I have so much respect to the people I met while working in this sector and those people whose lives were changed by war in their countries who rose above their limitations and become champions on their own and helping other people with disabilities like them.

Right now there are 41 countries at war and always the victims are the innocents … the mothers, fathers, grandparents and most especially the children. Cambodia took very long time to heal I hope other countries realize this and stop fighting altogether.