{Live to the point of tears}

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I saw this wonderful quote by Camus on Twitter today and the first thing that came to my mind was a scene that I witnessed at the Kabal Tralac Village in Cambodia. We were playing ball with the kids when one of the SSF volunteers got them to gather around and they started singing this song. I was struggling to hold back my tears as they sang. Their voices were so beautiful and so energetic, and it was really a wonderful moment.

I’m aware that my language is getting simpler, simply because I cannot find the right words to justify how I felt in that moment.

富有生命力的局面, 让我很感动。

Intense India

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This is surely a land of contradictions. New Delhi is made up of wide sweeping boulevards with little parks punctuating the sides. This isn’t the India typically depicted in movies; or at least not in Slumdog Millionaire. But before you can get used to this, the first dissonance appears, a shabby tent built right next to the entrance of an austere white mansion, apparently the residence of some important government officials. In no time, you’re thrown into the throes
of Old Delhi, and the guide yells at everyone to be on highest alert. We only have 2 minutes to get off the bus!

Old Delhi is a full on assault of the senses. Our tour guide somehow decided to take us on a speed walk through the little alleyways, and keeping safe 18 kids who seem to have a painful lack of awareness for traffic is no easy feat. There is an amazing palette of colours from the dazzling saris and the haphazardly colourful buildings that is juxtaposed with the drabness of the dirt and dust-cakes wires that hang precariously above you. If you’re lucky (which I wasn’t) you could even spot a baboon playing peekaboo. My ears could only pick out the horns, for survival purposes, since our main aim was to ensure that the kids didn’t get run down by the onslaught of tuk-tuks and mopeds, but when I looked at the videos I took later, I realised there was a perpetual tune and song playing in the background. Surreal. 

Above all though, it’s the sense of smell that is most overwhelmed. You literally go from the smell of fresh flowers to PEE (capitalised to emphasise the pungence) to the smell of steamed sweet potatoes to fumes from the exhaust pipes to SPICES (capitalised to emphasis richness & fragrance) to PEE again. And the cycle just continues until you can almost imagine your nose screaming “that’s enough for now!” And of course, this was all done as we were doing a strange dance across the streets, avoiding potholes, puddles, poop, merchandise and oh, the sleeping dogs. 

It was literally like being on a movie set.

I’ve tried hard to think of another city/country that I’ve been to that has been so damn overwhelming, and can encapsulate chaos and order so perfectly, and my mind draws a blank. 

India, you impress me. 

On gotong royong and love

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I read an article recently that changed my perception of love. It said that love is not a concept, unlike the fairy tales that Hollywood has been feeding us, it’s not one of those states that people simply get into and stay for a long time, even if it is “true love”. Rather, love is a connection, a moment between two people (or more) when you share this feeling of affinity, a spiritual bond of sorts. That’s why love does not just happen with one person, it happens over and over again, and it requires constant effort for this connection to be reinforced.
The homestay at Kampong Lukut made this perception of love very real for me. Watching the students cry when bidding farewell to their “foster parents” of one day reminded me of how I felt when I had to leave the kids at Flora Tristan and at Sao Sary. The connection at that time was so strong and I’d like to think that at that moment, I loved them with all my heart. Yet connections, as strong as they are at that moment, do fade away with time. And as sad as the students were yesterday, it’ll probably be in no time that this becomes all but a sweet memory to them.

Perhaps this is what they mean by the horrible cliché “不在乎天长地久,只在乎曾经拥有.” I’m grateful that in those moments, we owned that connection.

On a separate note, kampong life is really very refreshing. The kids grow up so much more resilient, not squirmy whenever they see an insect (#notetoself), filled with unbridled joy and excitement for a post-rain, muddy game of soccer, full of talents in music, dance and rhythm. This gotong royong spirit really keeps one alive, and in all our successes as a society, it is exactly what we lack and need at this point.

What A Life Of Travel Does To You

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It’s not everyday that you read something that sounds as if it came out of your very own mind. I was almost gasping as I reached the end of this article as it was a perfect exposition of how I feel towards travel and why there is a compulsion for me to go out and explore new lands at every chance I can. I always wondered if I was just being weird, or greedy, or restless – and maybe I am all three – but it’s still a little reassuring to know that I’m not the only one out there, that I’m not crazy for wanting to spend all the money I earn on seeking new adventures in foreign lands. It’s also not that I don’t love my home or the people here; in fact I’m well aware that had I not been born here, my experiences and opportunities would have been vastly different. But there’s just so much more, too much more, out there.

“You will never be completely at home again, because part of your heart always will be elsewhere. That is the price you pay for the richness of loving and knowing people in more than one place.”

This quote by Miriam Adeney perhaps explains why there is this perpetual, insatiable emptiness in me – it comes from all that richness. It’s that feeling of having loved too much, given too much, of allowing yourself no inhibitions – such that when it’s time to leave (and that time inevitably comes), you’re left with nothing more, and nothing less, than a treasury of wonderful memories. And at the risk of sounding melodramatic, I must accept the fact that I might never be whole again. I’m reminded of the impermanence that I wrote about: the fact that it has to be like this. These are memories and moments that happened because I was there, and you were there, and we were all there at that fateful time, and they can never be created again or the same … but that’s fine because at least, I was privileged enough to share in this with you. That little bit of me I left with Daniel in Peru, with Alex & Sabine in Vienna, with the Cambodian kids in the village, with you in all the places we’ve visited … they’re like tiny Horcruxes that might or might not survive time, but that I’ve willingly sacrificed because losing them has made me so much richer.  As someone who is most certainly “condemned” to a life of travel, this broken-heartedness is the price that I must and will gladly pay- again, and again, and again.

back to cambodia

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back to cambodia

I’m not the kind to usually retrace my steps in a country. I like exploring new cities, meeting new people – in fact I consciously make the effort to avoid going back to the same place (especially within the span of a year) because I have so many other destinations on my wanderlust list. But of course, this being a school trip with very specific objectives, I couldn’t afford to only consider my personal inclinations.

In a way, it was good because I did promise the kids at SSF that I would be back. We told them June previously, so technically I’m half a year late. It’s amazing how much things can change within a year – the guesthouse that looked dark and foreboding with its shutters is now an inviting blue. The room we stayed in no longer exists – in fact it is the lounge area for backpackers to rest while waiting to use the computer. There’s wifi access at the cafe and the toilets have heaters while the rooms are air-conditioned. Simple, but definitely functional. The food served up by the students was excellent, although I must admit that I was so glad to go back to the noodle stall and indulge in that bowl of sweet beef noodle soup. The kids at the protection center are still the same – the older ones ask, “This is not your first time here right?” even though we only spent an afternoon together at the village. The younger ones don’t remember, but they are as cute and mischievous as ever. The scary dogs at the office are no longer there, but during this trip I somehow lost that fear of dogs or insects. Perhaps it has to do with having to maintain a facade of bravado in front of the students. The people are still the same – Vichetr and his lovely wife, Panna, Narong, Varonika – all speaking with much better English now. It was so touching when they shared with my students their dreams and how they believe that change starts from the individual, and not from the context or country.

Our route in Phnom Penh was similar too – the killing fields (minus the ATV) and Tuol Sleng. The survivors are still surviving. The scenes evoked are still as harrowing, although I’m not sure my students are old enough to understand the gravity of the massacre. If ever there was the sensation of a parallel universe, this has to be it. The dissonance lies in how much things have changed – and this constant comparison between what has changed and what has remained felt like I was submerging myself in hot and cold water simultaneously.

Of course, there were some differences. We visited a different village this time and got to spend more time interacting with the villagers. I (thankfully) did not waste anyone’s rice this time while rice husking, even though one of our students dropped a metal hook into the well … We also visited a high school and a slum site where the people are so poor they live under the large electric cables.

This entire trip was like .. sitting under a giant Bodhi tree. I feel strangely zen after this, in the sense that I no longer feel that attachment to material goods. My obsession with new things and gadgets seems to have faded away (for now, and hopefully for good) and I would like to dedicate the time that I have to investing in relationships and health instead. At the end of the day, the riches we have on earth really matter more in the lives we’ve touched and the people we love, rather than the objects that wear, tear and fade away.

As we left the protection center, I walked away quickly, struggling to hold back my tears. But even though I made no promises this time, I have a very strong feeling that I will be back again.

Balonglong at Bai Tu Long

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It took us nearly 2 days and 5 visits to different tour agencies before we decided on going with Handspan’s Treasure Junk on our 2 day 1 night trip to Halong Bay. Selling points? The Treasure Junk was only a week old and its itinerary included Bai Tu Long bay, an area further off Halong Bay that is no less beautiful but much less crowded. And indeed, the only time we came across other tourists was when we docked for the night and at the pearl farm the next day. For most of the journey, it seemed as if we were the only boat cruising in the area, sans the occasional fishing boats and the quaint kelongs that had the fortune to call such a beautiful area home.

Against the dramatic backdrop of the 2000 odd limestone karsts that dotted the bay, the Treasure Junk sailed silently and steadily. (Note: I would advise against getting the room at the front of the boat. Although bigger, it’s located right where the anchor is so every time the boat docked or un-docked it felt like we were stuck under a dental drill. ) The food provided was decent but honestly nothing much to shout about. The service was excellent though; the crew attentive and accommodating. Another unique point about Handspan is its focus on eco-tourism, and I particularly liked how at the end of our kayaking trip, our guide actually took the effort to engage everyone in clearing the trash from the beach.
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One of my favourite moments on the trip involved me switching off all the lamps on the top deck and just lying by the light of the moon. The outline of the karsts were suddenly illuminated by the moon’s glow and I realized we were anchored comfortably in this natural harbour, protected by these formidable looking formations. (Of course, right after I wrote this our boat actually scrapped across the side of one of the rocks, but all’s good. Them Handspan Treasure Junks be hardy.) Sometimes we tend to take nature for granted; it’s easy to think that all these karsts were just planted haphazardly here by some celestial being or that they simply existed from the start of time. But nothing ever comes about just like that. It has taken, what, 250 million years for these rocks to be where they are today and that in itself is miraculous. Nothing in this world could have more patience and persistence than nature; we see this in the formation of stalactites and stalagmites, in the protrusion of roots through concrete, in the survival of cacti in the middle of a salt desert. Yet our temporal intrusion, what would proportionately be but a millisecond in the grand scheme of things, can sometimes leave ramifications that serve to test the patience of these natural wonders. We take for granted that they will last forever or we only see them as significant in that instant or in our lifetimes, and it is the accumulative effect of such behavior that has led to the gradual destruction of these natural wonders.

One of these days, we might be left with nothing but cities.

An introspective look into voluntourism in Cambodia

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This begs the following questions: how do we ensure safety in these projects? How can we make such projects more sustainable and beneficial to the people? As someone who considers her voluntourism experiences to be priceless, I’m in two minds about this growing trend as there are certain profit-making organizations that are simply exploiting the good intentions of volunteers. In addition, when such projects are embarked on just for the feel-good factor instead of for sustainability, the people who ultimately suffer are the supposed beneficiaries.

Check out this website for more discussions on voluntourism.

Sao Sary Foundation

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“The day before I set up the office for SSF, I had a dream where many children came running to me and asked me for help. I’m still looking for these children.” – Vichetr Uon

When we were kids, most of us were able to take comfort in the fact that we would always be able to turn to our parents for help and protection. Unfortunately, this is not the case for many children in Cambodia, some of whom are in high risk of being trafficked, abused or sexually exploited because their families are so poor.

When Vichetr Uon first visited Kampong Speu in 2006, he was shocked to see a family of 9 huddled around a bowl of rice water and living in conditions that were “15 years behind time”. Shortly after, he established Sao Sary Foundation, which now runs a child protection center in Kampong Speu and has undertaken several community projects to help the rural villages around the province. Despite many difficulties in getting through to the villagers at the beginning, SSF has come an incredibly long way and is now an esteemed partner in the community. Apart from being provided with a safe haven, the children are also given opportunities to study and some are even given scholarships to attend university.

WB and I were extremely fortunate to be able to accompany the teens from SSF to a few of the rural villages in Kampong Speu, where we witnessed first-hand the wonderful work that they are doing with their Bio-Sand Filter project.  Within a week of their installation, these bio-sand filters will provide potable water to the villagers, a luxury we have long taken for granted in Singapore.What we found most remarkable was the sense of empowerment given to the children and teenagers of SSF, as they are now the ones bringing out about change in the rural communities. That was our happiest day of the 9 we spent in Cambodia.

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SSF is currently transforming a three-storey building into a guesthouse that will also serve as a training center for hospitality. Slated to be done by end-January, it will have 6 bedrooms, a cafe, a large meeting room and several lounge areas for its guests and volunteers to hang out. I can’t wait to stay there!


Reflections: Art Boutique Hotel in Siem Reap

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“What the hell is that?!” were the first words that I uttered when I saw the crazy couch that was completely covered with soft toys. I mean, these soft toys were the couch.

The crazy couch that caught our eyes

WB and I were so intrigued, we walked in and ask if it was a restaurant or ..

“A new boutique hotel! Let me show you our rooms!” The manager, Hea, was quick and enthusiastic in showing us around despite us telling him that we were leaving the next morning and wouldn’t be able to stay the night there.

Reflections Siem Reap is the epitome of eclecticism. Described as an “art hotel” by its designer, Anusorn Ngernyuang, it has elements of art deco and pop art that border a little on kitsch. But what is most impressive about this hotel is the crazy amount of thought put into every nook and cranny. As each of the rooms has a different theme, guests are treated to a visual orgasm of colour, motifs and paraphernalia. The creation of each room is also unique. For example, Anusorn hired disabled artists to paint “Hope for Cambodia”. With names like “Secret Garden”, “Moody Moods”, “What A Cat Think?” and “Trash Chic”, there is a room for the movie aficionado to the barbie-crazed. It is also noteworthy that several rooms, such as “Hope for Cambodia”, were beautifully painted by disabled artists. “Trash Chic” (probably not what you were thinking there), on the other hand, comprises of stylish lifestyle products made from recycled materials.

There's definitely Hope for Cambodia

You're not gonna feel too moody when you enjoy the jacuzzi in this room

Secret Garden (One of the rooms with a jacuzzi)

Gotta love a "Life in Plastic"

Outdoor verandah for events

Swimming pools! They were still filling up the pool with water when we were there.

Good news is, the rooms are available at the wonderfully affordable rate of 80USD per night. If you fancy spending some time in a private jaccuzzi, be prepared to part with an additional 40USD (though I think this could be well worth it as the jaccuzzis are positioned under a skylight). If not, the hotel also has two pools for its guests and a cafe in the compound. There are also plans to include two dorm rooms for the budget traveller. Located along Wat Bo Road, which is just across the main river in Siem Reap and a 15-minute walk from Psar Chaa (Old Market), it is surrounded by trendy bars, cafes and designer boutiques.

WB and I with creative (and brilliant) designer, Anusorn!

For the love of art, check out Reflections: Siem Reap (for now, this link takes you to its sister hotel in Bangkok) at #0545 Wat Bo Street, Sangkat Salakamreuk, Siem Reap.