Five “Weird” Things I do in Cambodia

Before I came to Cambodia, I read countless blogs from other travelers to learn as much as I could about the country, what to pack, and how to do things once I arrived. The same things seemed to come up every time: save as much money as possible before coming, haggle on prices, pack light; I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point. I filled my mind with the knowledge of seasoned backpackers, and left feeling somewhat prepared and confident in my ability to adjust to whatever else I discovered.

Then I actually got to Cambodia, and turns out things are a lot different! This is not to say that I gained false knowledge from scouring travel blogs, but rather I behave differently than the travelers I sought advice from. Whether it is from being a volunteer in one location rather than a backpacker who moves about more frequently, or simply an odd ball, here are five “weird” things that I do in Cambodia.

1. I brush my teeth with tap water

What!? Yes, I know that this sounds awful, terrifying even. After the horrible stories the doctor’s offices tell you about how dangerous the water is, and how quick everyone is to remind you to drink only bottled water, the idea of brushing your teeth with tap water seems appalling and irresponsible.

In reality, the water in Phnom Penh, Cambodia has actually been declared safe by the government. The staff at the volunteer house for my program shared this with me and the other volunteers our first day here. While it is still recommended to drink bottled water, tap water is fine for brushing teeth. My second day here, I christened my tooth brush with tap water and guess what: I am fine.


Here I am, still alive after all this time

2. I go on runs and workout

“Cambodia is so hot, working out is impossible. You will sweat out everything, you don’t need to workout. There is too much traffic in Phnom Penh to run.” I heard and read phrases like these often before coming to Cambodia. Some of them turned out to be true: Cambodia is hot, I sweat a lot, and the traffic is insane. However, with a volunteer house equipped with Nutella, I definitely do not “sweat out” all the calories I consume in a day. While I am not too concerned about trying to keep up my workout routine from back home, I would like to somewhat maintain my girlish figure, or at least not turn into a pile of flab.

So I workout, in the heat, and sweating like a monster. It feels good. As a volunteer here and not a backpacker, I spend most of the day NOT moving around a lot. When I taught, I stood at the front of a classroom for hours. Now volunteering at a NGO, I sit at a desk and work on my laptop. Unlike backpackers who walk around all day, my lifestyle here is much less mobile. I need to actively create opportunities for myself to move and get my heart rate up. Doing short workouts a few times a week fixes that, and also makes me feel like a better person who deserves that extra spoonful of Nutella.


Who runs in Cambodia? We do

And the running? Traffic does not bother me. I have to walk places in the traffic, running in it isn’t much different. Just like with anywhere, I keep one earbud in, one earbud out, and remain vigilant.

3. I wear jeans

The one item of clothing forbidden on every packing list for Southeast Asia that I read. When I first learned not to bring jeans, I laughed out loud. Of course I would be brining jeans. At home, I live in jeans. I love wearing them, they are comfy, versatile, and in my case, stretchy. There was no way I was zipping up my suitcase without a pair.

And guess what? I wear them here. At night when I go out, during the day while I am at work, and sometimes just for a second to make sure they still fit and that I am not gaining too much weight here.


Modeling my jeans in front of the office

Sure it is hot, but I wore them back home when it was hot. Heck, I spent last summer wearing them around in 90 degrees Fahrenheit and up when I was working as an Orientation Leader for my university!


Throw back to when I rocked my jeans in the Davis, CA summer heat

A word of advice to future travelsmiths, if there is an item of clothing you love and wear often, then just bring it, you will probably wear it.

4. I keep my phone in my pocket

With motorbike and general theft an issue in Phnom Penh, many people warned me against keeping my phone out. The first few days I was here, I kept it safe at the bottom of my bag, far away from the clutches of any potential thief.


Exploring Phnom Penh with my phone in my pocket

Then one of my friends got her bag snatched and lost her phone, and I realized something: do not keep anything too valuable in your bag! On the daily, no credit cards, no big sums of money, and if possible, no phones. I keep my phone in my pocket, or in my shirt if I don’t have a pocket, so that if my bag got stolen, at least my phone wouldn’t be

5. I do NOT spend a lot of money on alcohol

I know what this sounds like: Southeast Asia is notorious for being cheap. Beers are fifty cents, shots one dollar, and cocktails three dollars. Of course I am not spending a lot of money on alcohol.

Let me clarify then: I hardly spend any money on alcohol. I spent a lot of time reading about how easy it was to party and get drunk in Southeast Asia. For a person coming to the country just to travel and have fun, that may be fine. However as a volunteer with a routine, and just as a person who does not like alcohol much in general, drinking every night is not my thing. Sure I have had my fair share of adventures with alcohol, like when I went to a Ceilidh in Scotland and that time I got drunk on a boat in Estonia. Even in Cambodia I have indulged in a drink or two. But the crazy party culture epitomized by the club I went to in Siem Reap?


A pink night to remember

Not part of my every day routine. If you know me, you know I do not like drinking much. The minute I can taste the alcohol in a drink, I no longer want it. And I am a light weight, a one drink wonder. After a drink or two, I’m done, and I like it that way. I don’t spend a lot of money on alcohol because I would much rather get a piece of cake at Joma, or buy a bus ticket to Mondulkiri, or even sip on a Sprite. I don’t want to drink away my money, but rather use it to experience Cambodia. And that is exactly what I am doing!

And there it is, five weird things I do in Cambodia. Whether it is because I am a wild child, a secret genius, or a nutcase; the world may never know.


The Travelsmith

Cafés Where I Like to Hide from the Sun

With complicated homesickness emotions, a lack of duties from the NGO, and rising temperatures, I spend most of my days hanging out in cafes in Phnom Penh. While the city boasts many cute and interesting looking spots, many that I have tried and failed to convince myself to pop into, I tend to return to the same few over and over again. I am a creature of habit and tend to be indecisive. As such, I have limited myself to only a few options for where to spend my afternoon hours; otherwise I will simply go from place to place, overwhelmed with choices, and go home feeling defeated. Time and time again, I ride my bike through the sweltering heat and arrive sweaty and red faced to my favorite locations, desperate for a cool beverage and a sweet treat. Since these places have brought me so much joy during my time in Cambodia, and especially in the last month, I thought I would share them with you.

Joma Bakery Café

My absolute favorite and most frequented of all the cafes, Joma Bakery Café is a haven. Located near the Russian Market, it is not only the closet to both my accommodation and work, but it has the best assortment of treats as well. Anything the heart desires is possible. Cakes, brownies, muffins, croissants, donuts, sandwiches, salads, smoothies and more! Everything sweet, savory, and a combination of the two are possible. And being a café, naturally a wide variety of coffee, both hot and iced is available. I myself sampled a few of their beverages, and I can affirm it is both caffeinated and delicious.

But what makes Joma especially dear to my heart? While the modern décor, air conditioning, and free wifi with purchase are all wonderful, it would have to be the attentiveness and friendliness of the staff. Every time I enter I am greeted with a “Hello sister!” and every time I leave a chorus of “Goodbye sister, thank you!” follows me out the door. Every one is always smiling, always kind, and after being harassed by aggressive tuk tuk drivers all day, the friendliness is much appreciated.

Backyard Café

A perfect spot to eat lunch after exploring the Royal Palace and walking around the riverside area, Backyard Café also holds a special place in my heart. I first visited Backyard Café my first weekend in Phnom Penh with my friend Laura, where we arrived famished and exhausted after walking around the city for hours. The café is not only adorable inside, but has an extensive menu that is extremely friendly to vegetarians and vegans. It is a perfect place to indulge and nourish the body with healthy super foods. With an option of salads, bowls, sandwiches and more, there is something for everyone. I personally recommend the Roasted Pumpkin and Red Pepper Hummus Sandwich, which is delicious and satisfying. However, while Backyard Café is very healthy indeed, it also boasts a selection of equally healthy deserts. Having myself fallen in love with the Raw Mango and Vanilla Bean Cheesecake, I am convinced that anyone with a sweet tooth can find something to their fancy here.

Kenneth’s Asylum

Tucked away on Street 63, about a mile from the riverside, I discovered this place just a few weeks ago. Lured in by the promise of waffles, this place did not disappoint. The moment I stepped inside, I felt like I had been transported into some hipster café in San Francisco or even Europe. The architecture, Game of Thrones references, and supply of complimentary books and board games screamed everything Western and provided a stark contrast and refuge from the traditional atmosphere of Phnom Penh. With a large menu selection, Kenneth’s Asylum has something for everyone. What’s even better? It’s open late and has a selection of drinks, perfect for those who wish to add an alcoholic beverage to their evening of pretending to be back home.

Though kicking back with an Angkor Draft beer does not particularly interest me, the ability to sit in a comfortable chair and eat a waffle with a scoop of ice cream on top is worth the four-mile bike ride it takes me to get there from the volunteer house.

Daughters of Cambodia Café


Who wouldn’t want to eat lunch in a place with a view like this?

Located right on the riverside, the Daughters of Cambodia Café should certainly not be missed for lunch while traveling through Phnom Penh. The food is delicious, the atmosphere is great, but the story behind the café is what truly makes it special. All the staff are former victims of human trafficking who have found a way out and are creating a new life for themselves. The café is part of a larger foundation, which gives support through job training, counseling, medical treatment, life skills, and education. All proceeds from the café and its gift shop go towards the effort of helping those who are victims of human trafficking, turning a simple meal into so much more. I would recommend this spot to anyone and everyone who wants delicious food, to find unique souvenirs, and wants to contribute to something bigger than themself while traveling through Cambodia.

There are undoubtedly many more incredible places to spend a free afternoon in Phnom Penh. While on my bike, I have passed by Cyclo Café just a few buildings before Joma, Eric Kayser along the riverside, and seen countless posters for Tour les Jours all around. I’m sure these places are just as lovely and with equally delicious treats. I encourage you, dear reader, to be more adventurous than me if you ever find yourself in Phnom Penh. But being slightly stubborn, biased, and prone towards favoritism, I find it hard to branch out. Besides, why bike all the way to the riverside to find new cafes, when a chocolate donut from Joma rocks my world.

Ever been to Phnom Penh? Let me know of your favorite café and treat in the comments below! Who knows, if it’s really enticing, I might just try it.


The Travelsmith

What Happened in April?

The emotional roller coaster that has been April presented me with some of the most conflicted and complicated emotions I have had since coming to Cambodia. I felt calm and stressed, exhilarated and defeated, grateful and yet desperate to leave.

A lot of enjoyable things took place in April, but I also found myself feeling a bit troubled. Feelings of unease and ambiguity left me unmotivated to push myself in my time here, to explore new places and experience new things. I lacked the enthusiasm to blog and share what was going on, whether good or bad.

However, after some soul searching and a chocolate donut, I believe it is finally time to talk about what has been happening in April. It is time to share the highs, the lows, and everything else that has happened over this month. For it is important to me to be true to what really goes on here, in both my time in Cambodia but also in my mind. What good is having a place to document my travels, if the writings are full of falsities and grand tales of exaggeration and fantasy? I never hesitate to share the wonderful times, and I also strive not to hide the challenges and the unfavorable parts of my volunteer experience.

At the beginning of the month, I felt tired. Two months in Cambodia, while incredible in many ways, left me feeling a bit weary and wanting to go home. I loved the excitement of being someplace new, and I loved the chance to meet new people, experience a new culture, teach young minds, play with children with the most beautiful souls, and write endless words for a NGO. Yet, I grew frustrated with waking up to ants crawling over me in my bed, fishing out bugs from my food, the feeling of never being clean, and the lack of respect from my almost completely male office.

My feelings of discontent created new ones: shame, guilt, and resentment. I knew that I should not be angry at a place that was different from home, for that was the whole point was it not? To be so outside of my comfort zone that it transformed me into a new person, forced to abandon her anxieties and worries in order to cope with new surroundings.

At first that worked, and once I got over the initial shock of Cambodia when I arrived three months ago, I slowly let go of the dark shadows that loomed over me in order to manage in my new environment. I am thankful for that. Cambodia became what I hoped it would be; not something that would fix me temporarily, but a place where I gained the tools to heal myself.

But as time grew on, the little things that irritated me continued to swarm in my mind. Some I disliked but could handle, like the inescapable heat and the smell of fish whenever it rained. Others frustrated me to points where I locked myself in my room and cried, such as finding insects in my food and rats running around the kitchen. I hated the uncleanliness, but my hatred only poisoned me with guilt for feeling the way I did. I wondered if I was losing the strength and development that I had gained here; if I was moving backwards.

I did not want to resent the experience that, despite the unfortunate parts, was becoming everything I wanted, and was giving me everything I had hoped it would. So I strove, and am still in the process, to change my mindset, to scale back, to do whatever it took to maintain a happy and positive attitude about my time here. I wanted to ensure the experience was one I could still look back on and smile about, not remember with any strong feelings of contempt.

Throughout April, I slowly scaled back. I spend more time in solitude, retreating to the quiet of my room to read books for hours on end. Over the course of the month, I finished four books, going from one to the next in a desperate attempt for some escape from the real world.

First I traveled through North Korea, learning about the intensity of government censorship and corruption, and the hardships of the people through the words of The Orphan Master’s Son. I was surprised, shocked, and horrified. I unconsciously drew parallels between the abuse and horrors of its political climate and the terrors suffered by Cambodian people during the Khmer Rouge. When I visited the Genocide Museum and the Killings Fields later in the month, my heart ached and my mind struggled to comprehend the barbarity of what took place.

Next, I went to England and exploring a both thrilling and unfortunate case about a hit and run incident. I realized a mystery story of filled with loss, rediscovery, and forgiveness. With I Let You Go, I reflected upon my own conflictions, my own inner turmoil coming to terms with the past. Even though I must confess this novel is mainly a thriller, something to read quickly and then impatiently wait for a movie remake to be made, I gained more from it. The story resonated with me, for reasons I am not quite sure.

After England, I got lost in a circus and within days devoured a story of magic, romance, and wonder. The Night Circus left me dazzled and mystified, feeling once again in love with life. Stories with fantastical elements excite me. As a child I built fairy houses in my backyard and tried to teach myself how to fly. I was convinced of the reality of Santa Clause and believed the world too big and too undiscovered to truly refute anything of whimsical origin. This tale spoke to my inner child, and brought me a happiness that I greatly needed.

Finally, I ended April in Afghanistan with A Thousand Splendid Suns. I cried alongside the stories of two women, brought together through cruel fates. I learned about Islam, the uprisings, the wars, and the terrorist groups; versions of both the ones I knew and the ones known by Afghanistan. I read recipes for food, prayers for worship, and the friendship and unlikely triumph of brave women.

But while traveling in spirit through the words in my books, I also journeyed to other places in the physical sense. Drained from feeling like a wasted extremity at my volunteer placement, where they had and still have failed to utilize me for all that I am worth despite my attempts, I desired to make better use of my time. Or at the very least, do something with it that brought me more joy than sitting in an ant filled office, surrounded by male coworkers that rarely talk to me.

As I mentioned before, I ventured to Kampot and Kep. I felt renewed by scenic lake and mountain views and empowered by operating a motorbike. My soul swelled with happiness after a weekend full of adventure, friendship, and good food.

I also played tourist in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap once again. With the arrival of my parents, for ten days I frolicked about with my family, feeling truly happy and complete for the first time in weeks. Modern technology may provide me with a closeness to my friends and family back home that I am truly thankful for, but still, nothing can compare to an actual hug from Mom and Dad, no matter how sweaty it may be.

Even after my holiday, I continued to seek solace. I frequently sought the air-conditioned refuge of cafes, taking extended lunch hours where I nourished my soul with a baked good or two. I reached out to friends, watched my favorite YouTubers, and spent hours binging Vikings on Netflix.

Four weeks later, April has ended. The toughest month of my time here so far has finally come to a close, and I feel relieved because of it. In my original intention of staying for six months, twenty-four weeks, I have reached the halfway mark.

Looking back, reflecting on all the things that have occurred and emotions I have experienced, I feel slightly surprised and proud of how I have changed here. Before coming to Cambodia, I felt instable, out of control, and afraid of myself. I distrusted my own thoughts and feared what crossed through my mind. My brain never turned off, and the constant thinking and worrying left me a bubbling pit of anxiety and despair.

I wanted to find myself again, and surface above all the darkness that had loomed around me. I wanted to not just revert back to the confident and happy person I knew existed somewhere inside of me, but progress past her, and reach a new level of fulfillment and self-assurance that epitomized the person I knew I could become; that I knew I truly was. And even with the occasional moments of uncertainty and dissatisfaction, I know that over these three months, I have become this person, found her within myself. I no longer stress like I once did, worry with the same aggressive nature, or feel like I am trapped in my life. Once again, I feel in control of my own destiny, the main character of my story.

With these realizations, I no longer feel the need to prove myself. My worries that I am not staying in Cambodia long enough, not in an enough culturally different or shocking place, not doing work important enough: all finally understood for the noises of falsity they truly are. For really, I have done everything I wanted to accomplish while putting myself so incredibly far outside of my comfort zone. I experienced a new culture, I learned how to navigate and survive in a city vastly foreign to me, I worked with a diverse team to help others on a global scale, and I overcame my own demons.

After years of feeling insufficient, for the first time in my life, I truly feel and believe that I am enough, just as I am, and it is the most beautiful truth in the world. So what happened in April? In April I questioned everything, but I also learned how to love and accept myself.


The Travelsmith

Motorbike Misadventures at Bokor National Park

“Have you ridden a motorbike before?”

“No, I haven’t, but I can do it.”

“If you do not know how to ride one I am unable to rent it to you.”

“Oh no, actually I have ridden one before. It has just been a while.”

I could feel the blood drain from my face as I heard Laura’s lie. Up until this moment, the prospect of renting a motorbike during our stay in Kampot seemed perfectly fine. Though we both lacked motorcycle licenses and any previous practice driving such vehicles, we saw it as an excellent complement to our weekend away, allowing us to design our own adventure rather than be under limited to a tuk tuk driver. With a hunger for adventure and a desire to explore Bokor National Park, we hoped to find our own way around and travel off the beaten path.

While Phnom Penh’s heavy traffic installed in me a fear of driving in Cambodia, the calmer and less busy roads of Kampot seemed like as ideal a place to experiment driving one as anywhere. Laura seemed confident enough to about driving a motorbike, and I somehow pushed my worrywart tendencies far enough aside to feel fine with it as well.


Beautiful Kampot

However when we arrived at our accommodation, ready to rent a motorbike and eager to head straight off to the national park and feast our eyes on incredible views, we ran into our first obstacle. Too trusting and too naive with our honesty, upon trying to rent the motorbike Laura confessed her inexperience. As is reasonable, we discovered the hotel would not rent a motorbike to someone unable to drive it. Despite the rationality of this discovery, and the probably safety precautions it meant to enforce, we both panicked.

My mind began racing a million miles a minute: Does this mean we should forget it? It was probably too dangerous anyway. What if we get in an accident and have to go to a hospital out here? Or worse, die.

But then, my mindset switched. Despite the dangers, I wanted desperately to ride the motorbike and to adventure, to see for myself the beautiful scenery I stalked on Google and travelers Instagram pages. I spent so much of my life afraid to do things, afraid to take risks and be spontaneous: I wanted to stop that.

In an uncharacteristic moment of bravery I opened my mouth, ready to blatantly lie: “I can drive one.” But before my heroic deed could be done, Laura beat me to the punch.

The young man at the front desk saw right through us, anyone could have seen it. But it also seemed he did not really care, as we found ourselves being handed a key to a motorbike. The initial excitement I felt quickly faded as we walked to the motorbikes, and once again I panicked knowing that we were about to embark on a journey that could kill us both.

When Laura first hopped on the motorbike, turned the key in the ignition and twisted the gas, my heart stopped as I watched her lurch forward in a frenzied and chaotic motion. “We’re going to die,” I thought, as I stood, my face cold with sweat, inspecting her intensely while she tried to get her bearings with the mechanical beast. After a while, she got better control over the thing and motioned for me to join her. About to vomit, I flung one leg over the side of the motorbike, and hopped on.

We moved forward at a glacial pace, being passed by cyclists and walkers alike. Little old ladies laughed and pointed at us, but we remained slow and steady on our vehicle. Some time passed, and Laura confessed she was beginning to feel more confident. I spoke words of praise, as I was actually impressed with how well she was doing, even if my knuckles, white from clutching the handle so tightly, suggested another sentiment.

More time passed, and eventually, the two foreign goofballs on the motorbike arrived at the entrance of Bokor National Park. Even the initial drive into the park was magical: roads surrounded by pink flowers, green everywhere, and silent of all noise. We felt like we were a Disney kingdom, or some other enchanted place.


We aren’t in Phnom Penh anymore

Like children, we giggled and smiled and screamed as we drove up the mountain, stopping constantly to take photos of the breath taking views. “This is my favorite place in Cambodia,” continually bubbled out of our lips.

However, tragedy struck an hour into our ride.

“Laura, the gas,” I shouted above the wind, suddenly noticing our once full tank now danced into the red zone.

A chorus of swear words and desperate efforts at solutions followed in our conversation as we attempted to problem solve. Unfortunately, nothing seemed feasible and we concluded our best bet would be trying to race down the mountain and make our way back before getting stranded.

The decent began, both of us silent with worry. Occasionally one of us broke the silence with a joke or to swear about the man we rented the bike from, cursing him for not telling us to fill the tank all the way up in order to reach the mountaintop. Mostly we drove, going faster than we ever dared before; for some reason thinking that the faster we went, the more likely we were to beat the dwindling gas tank.

“I don’t think we’re going to make it,” Laura confessed. “We have to make it,” I said, less to her and more to the God I hoped was listening.

In the end, we did make it, our engine sputtering with its last efforts as we pulled into a gas station just outside the park. Victory was ours, even though we looked more like terrified children than champions.

After filling our tank, we felt a bit defeated despite our triumphs, wishing we could have made it to the top of the mountain. “We have to go back and finish it before we leave,” Laura stated, and I agreed.

Two days later, we raced up the mountain. Now confident drivers, myself included, we resolutely sped around the twists of turns of the road, determined to make it to the top. The morning air chilled our skin, and the wind from our speed hit our faces harshly. But we pressed on, and after an hour, reached the top.

It felt like we were driving through clouds and into the heavens, or some other form of another more godly world. Unable to contain our excitement, we smiled and cheered gleefully, only shutting up when a bug proceeded to hit me in the face.

The top of the mountain is home to an abandoned Catholic church. We parked our bike and explored its beautiful and haunting ruins for a moment, appreciating it in all its glory. After admiring it for what we felt was an appropriate amount of time, we scanned the surrounding area, looking at the views. Everything was gorgeous, but we could not help but feel a little disappointed: where was the view in the Google images?IMG_3243IMG_3271IMG_3258IMG_3251

“I think we should go,” I said defeated, sure that we would not find anything better than this.

“I’m going to climb these stairs first,” Laura said, not ready to part with the church. I followed her, walking a set of old stone stairs.

At the top, we burst out laughing, becoming hysterical for we almost missed it. Behind the church and up the hidden staircase was the view of all views. And it was breath taking.


Stairway to Heaven?

The entire ride down the mountain and the three hour bus ride back from Kampot to Phnom Penh, I kept thinking about that view. It took two dangerous motorbike rides, almost getting stranded with no gas, and climbing some precarious stairs to find it, but it was worth everything and more.IMG_3272

In Kampot, I challenged myself and went against my instincts. I did things I would have never thought myself capable of, from riding a motorbike with someone who had never driven one, to driving it myself, to going up a mountain on it. I did things I was not necessarily ready for, but in doing so, I lived.

“If we wait until we’re ready, we’ll be waiting for the rest of our lives.” – Lemony Snicket


The Travelsmith

A Day in the Life of a NGO Volunteer

When I first imagined working for a Cambodian NGO, I could not help but wonder if it would compare to when I worked at the Scottish Parliament. As a parliamentary intern, I managed emails, wrote motions, conducted research for reports, and a slew of other tasks. Sometimes my days consisted of sifting through emails and speaking with constituents about local issues, while other times I spent hours writing about topics of importance to my MSPs. At times I felt a bit superfluous, but other times I felt excited and gratified, doing things I wanted to spend my whole life doing.


Back when I worked in a job that required a security clearance

While I knew not to expect my Cambodian experience to reflect my Scottish one, I built up a similar level of anticipation and enthusiasm for it. As an International Relations major, learning about other countries, peoples, and political systems fascinated me. I spent years reading theories about NGOs, politics, and cross-cultural exchanges, and I never doubted my desire to work in a field that would allow me to be constantly engaged in these passions. The opportunity to do so with this volunteer abroad experience seemed like a dream come true.

For the past five weeks, my time volunteering with a local Cambodian NGO has gone relatively unmentioned. I mentioned it a few times in my previous posts, but I purposefully waited to speak more about my time here. I wanted to give myself time to adjust into the new placement and time to get used to the flow of work and overall work culture.


An excited Travelsmith, ready to begin NGO work

After five weeks, I am still learning new things about YCC (Youth Council of Cambodia) everyday. Each day is different; some are busy and some are frustratingly quiet. The previous experience of my Scottish Parliament internship has definitely come in handy, not just with giving me an opportunity to practice similar work before, but also with getting accustomed to handling well a lack of work. At times I must take initiative to ask about projects on my own and conduct my own research to keep projects alive. Sometimes, I simply accept the slow moments as a time to practice patience, and I keep myself busy with other independent tasks.

A few days ago, a new volunteer coming to join me at YCC asked what a typical day of volunteering looked like. I smiled, racking through my brains on how to answer her question. Before I came to volunteer, I devoutly searched the web for the answer to the same question. In my typical need for control and certainty, I wanted to know what I would be doing and how I would be doing it. After five weeks, I already know that no two days are alike and trying to summarize a typical day is a bit futile.

Coming into a volunteer placement at a NGO, an open mind and a boatload of patience is the most important skill to bring. However, in an attempt to provide some “wisdom” to future NGO volunteers, or simply anyone who is curious, I thought I would finally shed some light on what I do here each day.

At YCC, I am supposed to complete a variety of tasks that include but are not limited to: writing reports and proposals for grants, helping translate documents into English, and planning the various organizational events. However, I have also been asked to do things such as fix a phone that cannot make calls, teach someone how to use Google Drive, and fix disconnected internet services. I have been whisked away to random meetings with donors and attended conferences where youth groups and political officials meet to discuss important issues, both of which, I will add, were entirely in Khmer.IMG_3128


The one English thing at a day long youth event I attended

The majority of my days are spent writing proposals. Already, proposals to obtain funding from organizations like Oxfam and Comic Relief have crossed my path. I spend hours figuring out ways to best describe the projects YCC wishes to complete, composing mini essays every time I complete another report. Since I love writing, and (not to toot my own horn) am pretty good at it, I find the work both stimulating and fulfilling. Each proposal is a new challenge; how will I answer their questions this time, what different ways can I speak about the issues facing Cambodian youths? The work speaks to my interests and strengths, allowing me to demonstrate my passion for equality, human rights, and everything else that first attracted me to my International Relations degree. I research statistics on unemployment rates for Cambodian youth, I find information on government policies regarding systematic public participation in politics, and I often collaborate with my coworkers on the best ways to present these issues in the proposals. Finally, I feel like I am doing something that I enjoy, and something where I feel like I am making a difference.

However, the work is not without its frustrations. Often times while working on a proposal, the NGO director will interrupt me with new information on things to include. More than once I have been told in very broken English how to write an “Objective Statement” or what a “Problem Summary” means. Each time I do my best not to be insulted, as of course I know what each of these things means, and simply smile and nod my through the condescending comments. The language barrier often leads me asking questions about what to include in the proposals.

“You mentioned you wanted me to change the specific goals of the project. I am happy to do that, but I need you to tell me what the goals are,” I ask, doing my best to speak in a calm respectful voice. “Yes,” the director always responds. “What are the goals?” I ask more pointedly. “Yes.” And this is how almost every conversation goes.

At least twice a day, I feel frustrated. However, the frustration results from something that instantly calms me: I care about the work, I like what I am doing. All at once, everything becomes worth it; the sweaty bike ride here, the times I sit doing nothing because the proposal hasn’t been sent back to me with the directors notes to finish it, the moments I smile while I am being treated like an idiot: all completely worth it.

I get to write about issues I care about. I get to work with people that, for the most part, I like. I get to be part of changes toward something good.

Volunteering at YCC has forced me to be patient, calm, and determined. When things are quiet, I remind myself that I am working for an organization that does youth development in Cambodia, and so I do my own reading about youth development and about Cambodia. When I am irritated at the director, I remind myself that I am a volunteer paying to be here, and whenever I want, I can leave; I am not trapped in any sense. When I am writing a proposal, I remind myself that this is what I want to do and that I have given myself the incredible opportunity to be doing it.IMG_2959

No two days are alike here, but the feelings that flow through my mind each day often are. They are constant waves of frustration followed by contentedness. For any future NGO volunteers reading this, know that you will be tested, but you will also get to do what you love to do. To me, that makes everything worth it.


The Travelsmith

Cambodia Weekly Rewind 7 & 8

Two months, eight weeks, 62 days… When I first arrived, I wondered how I would make it through the first two days, and now after two months, I find it hard to comprehend leaving Cambodia. While at times I long for the comforts of home, and more than anything a hug from my mom, the idea of actually leaving and return to a life of normalcy, in comparison to the adventurous lifestyle I live here, feels strange. I am not afraid or ashamed to admit that I struggle with Cambodia at times, often wishing it was not quite so hot or the floors were not quite so dirty. But after two months of slowly letting everything sink in and allowing myself to adjust to the culture, I have a slight inkling that it will be my home that feels foreign when I return.

The Highs

So many incredible things have happened over the past two weeks, but by far the best thing was receiving a care package from my grandma. Of course I love my grandma to the moon and back already, but after opening a package to reveal not just the chap stick, bug bite cream, and vitamins I felt so lucky to have her send me, but also cookies, chocolate, granola bars, and other snacks… I nearly burst into tears. I feel so very lucky and grateful to have such a wonderful grandma. My grandma, or Nini as I call her, has always spoiled me rotten and been the absolute best to me. She is such an amazing person, and inspires me so much with her travels and her attitude towards life. And since I know she reads these posts, I would just like to say again, thank you so much Nini. I love you, and I’m munching on the ginger snaps you sent me as I write this. IMG_3117.jpg

Speaking of food, eating lunch at the Daughter’s of Cambodia Cafe was also a memorable event of the past two weeks. Last Saturday, Laura, Rebecca, and I treated ourselves to a lunch out along the riverside after a week of hard work. The Daughter’s of Cambodia Cafe is both a cafe and a NGO. All the staff members are survivors of human trafficking, and work in the cafe to learn professional skills so that they may change their lives. The mission of the cafe is inspiring, and it was a humbling experience to be surrounded by young women (and men) who had survived such tragedy in their lives. Of course, the food was also delicious, and I enjoyed eating a tasty lunch while looking out at a gorgeous view of the riverside.


The unreal view from the Daughters of Cambodia cafe

To top off my seventh week in Cambodia, I went to see Beauty and the Beast at the cinema. It left me speechless and weeping. While I do like the original Beauty and the Beast, I must admit that it is not my favorite Disney film and I never quite understood everyone’s obsession with it. However I love Emma Watson, and live action remakes of Disney films in general, so naturally I knew I would be seeing this film no matter what. I am so glad that I did! Emma Watson’s portrayal of Belle was amazing. She was confident, empowering, and such a good representation of all Belle’s good qualities. The cinematography of the movie was beautiful as well, and it was a sheer joy to watch. I do not want to give away any spoilers, so I won’t say anything more about the film, other than to say that I recommend everyone to see it.

Moving into the eighth week, as I promised myself, I started riding a bike to work! Riding my bike is exciting and sweaty. I love getting that little bit of extra exercise in the day, even if it comes with a back drenched in sweat and smog in my eyes from all the traffic. My daily commute is a bit stressful, as I cross many of the main roads of Phnom Penh. Since traffic laws do not really exist in practice here, it makes for a hectic ride, but one that I am getting more and more used to each passing day. I must admit, I do miss how when I took a tuk tuk to work, I arrived looking and feeling fresh. However, saving $5 a day by riding my bike is worth looking a bit disheveled.

The Lows

While the past two weeks boasted mostly exciting things, a few unfortunate events happened as well. Last week, I said goodbye to my friend Rebecca who had been volunteering with me at YCC. I got quite emotional saying goodbye, trying very hard to fight back tears and maintain my composure, which if you know me, I am not very good at doing. Rebecca is such a wonderful human being. She is funny, kind, and I appreciated her friendship so much over the weeks that I got to know her. With her gone, it also means that I am now alone at YCC. Being the only foreigner in the office is a bit unnerving. While my coworkers are nice, they rarely talk to me despite my attempts at small talk, which has meant quiet days and a sense of loneliness in the office. It has left me feeling a little bit unsteady with my placement, and at times I do find myself wishing that I was back teaching or somewhere else where I had someone to talk to during the day. However I know that this is just a temporary emotion, and that I do love my work. Everything has a way of working itself out, and I am sure things will get better after a while.

Another sad moment of the past two weeks was finishing my book The Goldfinch. For the past few weeks, I have been obsessed with this book, reading it as if it were a drug and I was the addict. As I mentioned in my last rewind post, the book is truly a work of art, with sentences that will captivate you and swallow you whole. Upon finishing this book, I cried. I cried because the book was so incredible that I was overcome with emotions, and I cried because I could not bear the fact that it was over. It was such an epic tale told so beautifully, and it had consumed me so fully that I did not want it to end.

The Emotions

At the beginning of this two week period, I felt very uncertain. My battle with uncertainty has been a reoccurring theme throughout my entire two months in Cambodia. I can feel on top of the world one moment, and in a bubble of anxiety the next. Most of it stems from the fact that I signed myself up for such a long stint of time here. Even in the moments where I love Cambodia, the fact that I might have four more months volunteering in the country feels quite overwhelming. I am not sure why this is exactly, and perhaps not knowing why I am having this struggle is the most unnerving aspect of my emotions of all. It makes me feel a bit like an impostor.


At least they still like me… 

However, I know that is foolish to think like this. Of course I am not an impostor, I have already been volunteering in Cambodia for two months! I have traveled, I have volunteered, I have adventured; I am the embodiment of the travelsmith that I am and aspire to be. Perhaps I simply need to stop fighting this emotion, and embrace it instead. It is okay to feel unsure, to feel uncomfortable at times. I do not need to doubt myself and think it is the foreignness of Cambodia causing this, as I have certainly felt similar emotions back at home. While I was in university I often felt incredibly unsure of myself and where my life was going. The same feeling crept up and overwhelmed me when I was working at my previous job, and it was that feeling that prompted me to come to Cambodia in the first place. There is nothing wrong with having emotions of uncertainty or anxiety, so long as I can stay afloat above them and prevent them from consuming me whole. And so that will be my goal: to recognize the emotion, but take hold of it and have command over it, and not let it control me.

The Forthcoming

Perhaps the most exciting thing coming up in the next few weeks is the arrival of my parents! Words cannot describe how happy I am that my mom and dad will be coming to visit me for a week. I still get choked up thinking about it. While, thanks to technology, I have been able to keep in good contact with my family, I still miss them terribly. I am very close with my family, especially my parents, and being away from them this long has definitely taken a toll on my emotional wellbeing. In two weeks, Mama and Papa Travelsmith will be landing in Phnom Penh international airport, and a week of sight seeing, eating, and general merriment will commence. Needless to say, I shall be a very happy travelsmith in the weeks to come.


I cannot wait to see two of my favorite people!

In addition to the arrival of my parents, starting tomorrow a new volunteer will be coming to YCC for two weeks. I am so happy at the prospect of not being the only foreigner in the office. While my coworkers are nice enough, I do often feel outnumbered and a bit outcasted, so having a fellow native English speaker to chat to will be nice. I met the volunteer yesterday, and she seems very friendly and I think we will get along great. She also just of happens to live a few hours away from where I do back in California! What are the chances of that?

And finally, the next thing coming up will be some new blog posts about my travels to Kampot and Kep. This past weekend, my friend Laura and I went to Kampot and Kep, and it was the best thing I have done in Cambodia so far. We ate delicious foods, swam in a river, and rode a motorbike up a mountain. I won’t say anymore than that, but will just leave you with a picture of this view to give an idea of how incredible my weekend was. Be sure to keep an eye out for that blog post.IMG_3263.JPG

With that, two months in Cambodia has passed. The time has felt both fast and slow at the same time. While I cannot believe that it has already been two months, at times I also feel like, how has it only been two months. So much has happened, from personal growth to actual events, that I feel like time has truly become relative. My life in Cambodia almost feels like a bubble, where I am slightly cut off from reality and the rest of the world. I am intrigued to see how my remaining time here will feel. Will it fly by? Or will it feel like it is barely passing? Only time will tell…


The Travelsmith

Dear America, I’m Still Hungry

Dear America,

About a year and a half ago, I confessed my love for your food. After months of stuffing my face with Scottish pastries, my stomach began to long for the sweet treats of home. I yearned for the processed, sugary goodness of hazelnut coffee creamer and other delicacies, promising that if I could taste them one more time, I would never take them for granted again.

When I returned home, I gratefully ate and drank everything that I missed. I attempted to truly appreciate the foods my country offered, whether stereotypically American or not. Over the course of about a year, I enjoyed all the flavors of home.

And now America, once again I find myself thousands of miles away from you and I once again long for your food. For two months, I consumed rice, sometimes noodles, and various vegetable dishes. Some days I happily ate this concoctions, while other days I only ate to keep myself from being hungry. While I am truly grateful for the opportunity to eat each day, and even more thankful to be in a volunteer program where my meals are provided for me, I must admit, I miss the food from back home.

I miss coffee. While each morning I sweat over a hot cup, it is a sad instant packet mixture consistently of sugar, powered milk, and a mere “18%” coffee – What does that even mean? I long for the strong roasts of home, powerful enough to give me energy even after the most sleepless nights. The thought of getting to mix a little hazelnut creamer in my coffee again is almost enough to make me want to go home this instant… Yes, I addiction and need for it is that strong.

I miss cheese. Yes, this lactose intolerant traveler longs for something cheesy. It is true, back home I tried my best to stay away from all things cheddar and delicious. However, after two months without even the chance to slip up, I find myself drooling over pictures of pizza, feeling false hunger at the thought of cheese toast! I cannot even begin to describe what I would do for a bowl of macaroni and cheese. Of course, if I really wanted something I could go for a meal out and order it… But the sheer lack of anything cheesy available on a day to day, while good for my allergy, creates a desperation for it that I have never known before.

I miss pancakes. True, I did not eat pancakes all the time back home. However anyone who knows me will attest to my love for them. I am always down for a run to IHOP, whether for breakfast, a snack, lunch, dinner, after dinner… There is no wrong time to enjoy a stack of buttermilk pancakes. Real, fluffy, buttery pancakes. While there is nothing wrong with a crepe, calling it a pancake is a cruel lie.

I miss carbs that are not white rice. Sweet potatoes, pasta, regular potatoes, bagels, oatmeal… The list goes on and on. Back home, I survive on a diet that consists mainly of sweet potatoes and oatmeal. The sudden removal of them from my life definitely gave me withdrawal syndromes. I dream about eating oatmeal, I have wild fantasies about finding sweet potatoes at a market and buying all of them… Such a weird thing to miss I know, but I miss it all the same.

So much of my cravings and my newfound revulsion towards rice derives from the nature of my time here. Being in a volunteer program with a rotating schedule of set meals has created repetition and monotony. Though at home I typically eat the same thing everyday, it is much easier to do this when they are my favorite foods rather than ones with unknown vegetables and mystery meats.

The flavors of Cambodia are ones I am grateful to have had the opportunity to taste. I have truly enjoyed sipping on Mango smoothies and sweating over curries. While I have not yet experienced the joy of eating anything that was wrapped in a banana leaf as promised by my grandmother, I know that when that day comes, I will be thankful for it as well.

However, I still long for the smells and tastes of food from home. Months still stand between me and you, America, but know that when I return, I will return hungry and ready to eat.

Forever Yours,

The Hungry Travelsmith