Monk-y Business

A little while ago, I was walking around the Riverside region of Phnom Penh with this guy who has become a friend (an American who hasn’t lived in the U.S. in over a decade, I’ll call him J – he was the one who ate the frogs from my last post), and I asked about interacting with monks. “What are you supposed to do when you see a monk? Like if you walk past a monk?”

“What do you mean, what are you supposed to do?”

“Like, do I have to bow, avert my eyes, or make some other gesture of respect? Do I have to give them something in their awesome little bags they carry?”

“You don’t have to do that stuff, I guess. All I really know is you just don’t touch a monk. Especially as a woman, you should never touch a monk.”

I accidentally touched a monk. Well, not exactly accidentally.

I’ve been going to vipassana meditation sessions at Wat Langka. They have public sessions four times a week. When you google it online, every site seems to have the days and times wrong, so it’s taken me weeks (and multiple failed attempts, also inviting J to wrong days/times) to get the schedule correct. But now that I’ve got it, I try to get there at least a couple of times a week.

This what the door looks like when you show up at the wrong time. Or on the wrong day.

The hardest part (well, other than getting there when sessions actually are happening)? These are hour-long sessions. An hour. If you meditate, you get how long this can feel. Here’s what the first 5 seconds in my mind typically looked like:

(1 second)

*focused on feeling the breath in the nose*

Is this cushion harder than usual?

Should I have sat closer to the front?

Maybe the breeze would have been better off to the side.

Where’s that monk right now?

Is he watching me?

Am I doing this right?

(2 seconds)

*focused on breath in the nose*

Man, my hips are tight tonight.

How’d my feet get so dirty?

Why can’t I get my shoulder blades to feel comfortable?

Is that an ant crawling on my leg?

(3 seconds)

Good god, it’s hot in here.

Is it sacrilegious to say “good god” in my head while meditating in a Buddhist Wat?

Is it sacrilegious to be in a Buddhist Wat when I’m not even a Buddhist?

Am I doing this right?

Oh yeah, the breath.

*focused on the—

Why is that guy wearing the world’s loudest pants and moving around so much?

Is that rooster crowing more than usual?

Why do roosters crow?

Because they’re hungry?

Or they’re looking for a hen?

I’m fairly certain that thinking of chicken relations is sacrilegious while meditating.


(4 seconds)

Will that Indian restaurant be open on my way home?

That paneer was so damn good last time.

How can my ankle already be uncomfortable?

Well, it does feel like I’ve been here a long time.

Maybe it’s been 20 minutes or so, so I guess it makes sense.

At this rate, I’m going to sweat so much I’ll only be 10% water.

(5 seconds)

So many people have sweated this profusely on this cushion before me.

Do monk duties include washing meditation cushions?

Do monks even do their own laundry?

Aaaaaaah! There’s the breeze! This is what nirvana feels like!!!!

No, nirvana’s that beautiful bell he rings at the end of the session….

About at this point, the same monk usually says something to the extent of, “First time meditation? First time at meditation, come with me. Come with me, one moment.” As I found out my first time (well, my second time, actually, since the first time I had gotten there too late for him to give me the spiel), he shows the people a tiny book and instructs them to start reading on page 16. The section about seating postures. It’s directly followed by what to actually do in vipassana meditation. It’s a wonderfully simple book with great directions. I actually wish I could get a copy, but the monk is very adamant to each group that the books get returned, and I didn’t notice any publisher information on it. All that to say that I wanted to re-read it the next time I went back.

The door is open when you show up on the right days at the right time.

Before getting settled in on my next visit, I took a small book to the monk and asked if it was okay if I read it again. He looked at me and said, “You read Chinese?”

I looked blankly at him for a second and finally responded, “Umm…. No….”

He kindly said, “This book Chinese. Go get English book.”

I giggled and, in a gesture of “how-silly-of-me-to-have-grabbed-the-Chinese-book-ha-ha-ha,” reached my hand out to touch his arm.


His monk arm.


My fingers just glanced his robe as my conscious brain finally connected to what my body was doing.

He had no response. Luckily I responded with a double cringe. And a bow. And an apology, before scurrying off to get the English book. He never showed any negative response, even when I returned with the book I could actually read, a reaction beautifully in line with the Buddhist teaching of forgiveness.

Let’s just say that I put more than 500riel (that’s about 12 cents) in the box that time around. A Western white girl in a wat can at least try to buy her way out of guilty feelings, right????


Language Learning

I’m taking a Khmer language class, and it is kicking my ass. Luckily, though, we’re only learning the spoken language and avoiding written language, because the Pali/Sanscrit combo is currently beyond the reaches of my Roman-alphabet-centric brain.

On my first day of class, I walked up the stairs, thinking I was supposed to go to classroom #2 (because I stopped to use the toilet and forgot where I was supposed to go). I walked in the door, and the two Western gals in there greeted me in Khmer and then said, “You’re here for level seven?” I replied, “Level seven? Noooooo. Kickstart. Which is like level zero, right?” They kindly laughed and told me which classroom I was supposed to be in.

The kickstart class, an intensive two-week course, has ten people in it. Four are young gals from Denmark here volunteering with some Christian organization doing work surrounding the sex industry. There are also three other young people with another Christian organization (from the USA and Mongolia) here to do similar work surrounding the sex industry. Then there’s a guy who works for an NGO also doing work surrounding the sex industry. The only other person in the class just happens to be another speech-language therapist. Turns out this gal (I’ll call her SLT2) is working for a woman who’s also involved directly in the work I’ll be doing. Small town of 1.5 million!

Learning a second language is just plain hard when you’re not a young child. Several years ago, when I was going to spend a bit of time in Argentina, I used the Rosetta Stone course to learn a bit of Spanish. I studied. I logged the hours listening to the words and phrases. I answered the questions. I repeated things and let Mr. Rosetta tell me just how jacked up my pronunciation was. But I managed to work my way through several levels, giving me a bit of confidence that I’d be able to get by in trying to communication when arriving.

Man, was I wrong. First of all, the pace of language — real language, spoken by real native-speaking people — is immensely faster than anything ever presented via an online course at the level I was doing. And while the content of online courses is usually applicable to things you’d need while traveling, I never had to actually ask for a teacup. And while I could label the color of anything I saw, somehow the lovely people of Argentina never asked me to dazzle them with this skill.

There are things here that I wonder why are on the list of important things to learn, but I do feel like some of the things we learn are glimpses into culture. For example, in the middle of learning greetings and the like, we also learned the phrase, “Help! Fire!” Huh. Really? As common as, “Hello.” Whaddya know. Although, if you saw the electrical wires on streets here and extrapolated this wiring system to homes, you may no longer wonder at all about the necessity of teaching this phrase.

Our teachers encourage us to talk to people about things on the street. “Ask the woman at the market how she’s doing,” or “Negotiate prices with your newly-learned Khmer number knowledge.” (no specific encouragement was given on the “help! fire!” phrase, though.) So I try. I tell my tuk tuk drivers I am learning Khmer. I ask things like, “How are you doing?” There are two possible responses in this situation. (1) Blank stares, letting me know my pronunciation is horrible or my words are wrong. I’m sure I’m saying things like, “You where goes yellow goodbye.” (2) A string of words in response that comes so rapid fire that I have no idea what the words were, much less what they mean. The one good thing from this? I’m learning very quickly how to say, “Please say that again more slowly.” (note: i usually still can’t understand a damn thing anyone is saying.)

And I know it’s incredibly cliche to say that a smile supersedes language (and all that other stuff about communication being so much more than language) but gotdamn if it isn’t true. And laughter? There are few things I find more endearing than laughing together with locals over how horribly I verbally massacred something.

Charmed life example #328? Almost everyone here speaks some English. And if they don’t, they’re usually willing to go round up a helpful young person who does.

Unrelatedly, I ate one of these tiny fried frogs (skewered through the eyes). No, they didn’t taste like chicken. My strolling partner was forced to eat the rest as we couldn’t even give the rest away. Tiny Skewered Frogs

Tuk Tuks (sort of)

I sat down to write about tuk tuks, but it’s not what I really have on my mind. It’s about to get a bit … umm… introspective? preachy?…  in here for a minute. Consider yourself forewarned. I’ll post a bunch of pictures at the end, though, so you don’t feel misled by the title. I’ll start with tuk tuks, though…

I mean, it’s really still sort of about tuk tuks, but it’s mostly about being an outsider. And being an outsider is both a blessing and a curse of travel. While it’s the only way to experience things very different than what you’re used to experiencing, it also keeps some doors closed and opens some so widely that you wish they’d slam the hell shut.

Like the open door for tuk tuk drivers on street corners waving from an entire block away and yelling, “Tuk tuk, madame?!” I get it. It’s these guys’ way to make a living (and, yes, they’re almost all guys. i’ve seen one woman tuk tuk driver so far), so it makes sense for them to hawk their wares as assertively as possible. But when it happens literally over a hundred times a day when you walk places, you get tired of saying “no” (or “aw-tay”) with a smile that many times.

The other day, I walked out of a mall (another whole topic I could write about, given my love for malls in general – what a place!) in the drizzle, and it was like a swarm of bees with all the tuk tuk drivers when I approached the street. Umbrella up, head down. I powered the length of the block where they were all parked. Was I tired? Fed up? Hangry? I don’t know. But something got the better of me, and I found myself feeling frustrated and angry with these people who are just trying to make a living.

It was interesting to watch myself go from several weeks ago finding the interactions positive and engaging, to finding it all tiring and infuriating. It just begins to wear on a person.

And here we go… (Qualifier, because that’s how I roll: these are incomplete thoughts, spurting from my fingertips. If something strikes you as “off,” as ignorant, as disrespectful, please make a comment so we can have a discussion about it.)

Travel recalibrates my mind in so many ways. Today I am reminded of how lucky I am to have been born into a situation that makes me not have to think about how to fit in unless I choose to be in that situation. Now, I understand that my experience here is NOTHING like the things people encounter in the United States when they are viewed as outsiders. Or anywhere else where outsider status arbitrarily equates to less-than status. I would never even consider to compare this to the systemic issues that exist (except, i get that i am comparing by even writing this), but it’s good for me to experience this tiny glimmer of what it feels like to consistently be seen as an outsider and treated differently because of that. I am SO. DAMN. LUCKY. to be able to say that I’m an outsider incredibly rarely, that sometimes my outsider status as a rich white American girl is a positive thing, and that I typically only experience any bit of discomfort when I choose to put myself in those situations. I mean, really? How much more ridiculously privileged can you get that, to feel even any surface removal of privilege, you pay for an expensive plane ticket and jet off to the other side of the world?

There are people in my own town at home who experience the negative sides of this type of thing every day, only magnified a quadragazillion times. And not in worst-case terms of getting ripped off by having to pay an extra $1 for produce in the market, or being mildly harassed by tuk tuk drivers, but in terms of getting into life-and-death situations. Literally. Life and death.

So, now, every time I’m greeted with, “Tuk tuk, madame?” even if said in a more-aggressive-than-assertive way (which, honestly, is quite rare), I smile openly, say “aw-tay,” silently wish them well, and send a message of gratitude to the universe for this being the extent of the annoyance I endure as a rich white girl in the world.

Charmed life example #1.


And now, the promised pictures in a series I’ve entitled “Town by Tuk Tuk,” or, “Back of Tuk Tuk Drivers’ Heads,” or “Tuk Tuk, Madame!” or “There’s One with a Dog on the Back of a Moto.”












Holy Guano

I felt like I needed a vacation from Phnom Penh. Okay, not really, but I figured I’d get out of town a bit while I still had some flexibility in my schedule. What better place to go than the reportedly sleepy town of Kampot. It’s a riverside town about 150km (a three and a half hour bus ride) south of Phnom Penh. I chose the fancy bus for an extra $2 ($9 round trip), and booked a couple of nights in a guesthouse recommended by SLT1. After a tuk tuk ride to the bus station during which the driver sang at the top of his lungs half of the way, I was on my way.

Upon arrival, I spent a good amount of time just relaxing at the Ganesha Guesthouse, where I found kind people and decent food (the drinks? deeeeelish.).

But for the one full day I was in town, I decided to pay for a tuk tuk driver to take me to some sights in and around Kampot and Kep (a small town known for crab on the Gulf of Thailand). We stopped at the bank to break my $100 bill (damn ATMs), and now we were on our way.

Our first stop was Phnom Chhnork (but some locals wanted me to spell it Chhngork, so who knows..). You can read the generals about it from Lonely Planet, but just know that there’s a whole experience there that is NOT fully described. Lonely Planet describes the cave, saying, “A slippery passage, flooded in the rainy season, leads through the hill.” It’s rainy season, but evidently it wasn’t flooded. But I’ll tell you about the caves in a minute…

This day-long tour also included hours of riding in the tuk tuk through rice paddies…


a visit to Secret Lake (although many locals called it Hidden Lake – tomayto/tomahto)….IMG_20170802_112247479_HDR

a trip to a pepper plantation (Kampot pepper is evidently world-famous)…

and then to Kep for some amok crab (a traditional Khmer steam-cooked curry in banana leaves, with fresh crab).

IMG_20170802_153321245_HDR (1)

But the cave…

A 12-year-old with great English skills, Sai, greets me at the tuk tuk and guides me toward the steep hill (mountain?). We go up the stairs, which are not a problem, and there are great views at the top. There is an older white couple coming back down the stairs, something I won’t do, as I’ll come out another way — just wait…

Once stepping inside the mouth of the cave at the top of the stairs, there is a 7th-century brick temple with a wide stalagmite in the center. Being in the presence of this type of ancient holy structure makes me feel honored, and I say so. Sai says, “You take picture. I pray for you.” Thanks, brother. Buddha knows I need it. I also take pictures of the elephant-like figures in the walls, all of which turn out for crap. When I finish, Sai asks, “You want to see the bats?”

“Yes. Yes, I want to see the bats.”

“You like bats?”

“No. No, I don’t like bats at all. But let’s go see them.” We enter the cave.IMG_20170802_104819660

He shines his flashlight haphazardly as I slip and slide undoubtedly through guano and mud in the pitch black (Lonely Planet did say it would be slippery…). His light shines at the ceiling while he says, “You step here.” Umm… I’m not Spiderman (or this cave creature he pointed out), but I try my damndest to guess where he means.IMG_20170802_104707768This pattern of shining the light, then likely gesturing somewhere else but that gesture not being visible to me as there was NO light other than where he was shining it, kept happening. At one point, having already slid on my ass several times with the directions that, “You will stop at the bottom,” Sai now tells me, “You’ll just jump here.”

“Jump?” I ask, “Jump into that black hole there?”

“Yes. I go first, then you jump and I catch you.” Bahahaha! This diminutive 12-year-old will catch me?

“Sai, I’m afraid of heights. I’m not sure I can do this.” But I do. And it turns out this wily little bugger pushed and held me against the wall as I started jumping so that I slid down rather than free-falling off the 6-foot drop (which doesn’t sound far until you’re in the pitch black. with a 12-year-old boy. in a cave.). Clearly he has done this before.

At this point, with sweat dripping down my face and dripping onto my glasses as I aim my face down in futile attempts to see anything near my feet, I can barely see anything even when the flashlight is aimed where I need to go. We see several bats hanging in the cave and several flying around. I try to take pictures, but with my unsure footing and the complete darkness, even my flash and image stabilization can’t make this work.

Now we start climbing, with him saying, “You just go like this,” as he scampers up slippery, wet rocks in flip flops (have i mentioned that this kid is wearing flip flops???). Now my fear of heights has kicked in full-force because we are getting glimpses of light from the outside at certain points. I can see the 15-foot drops to the left of where we’re climbing, and I wonder whether it would be better to land on the flat rock at 18 feet or the jagged rocks at 15. All I can think about is the availability of medical care for severe head injury in Kampot. I am now sweating profusely and my respiration rate is more rapid than if I’d just sprinted this whole distance, because now I am vividly imagining what will happen if one foot slips. (seriously. my palms are sweating writing about this.)

“”Put this foot here…” (a one-inch lip on the rock)

“With this hand here…” (a rounded knob on the vertical wall that doesn’t really allow for a grip with a single hand)

“Then your next foot here…” (hip height from my other foot to a two-inch wide shelf at a 45-degree angle to the ground)

“Then this hand here…” (is there even something there to grab? it looks like a vertical rock face from down here)

And so it goes. I have to take his word for these directions, because once I start the momentum for these four- or five-step directions, I had damn well better not stop as it is likely my footholds will not hold well enough to support me for anything more than a brief push-off.

I ask, “Maybe we could go back the way we came in?” But no. Evidently that is not even an option. And, thinking about the slipping and sliding we did for that amount of time on the way down, I’ll trust this assessment of his.

I begin. I lunge upward, adrenaline coursing through my system. I make it to the first resting space, a rounded stalagmite, and shake. “Now you rest, madame.” But I feel so unsteady, my legs are shaking so badly, that I ask that we move on after I take a couple of deep breaths.

One of my protests sounds something like, “But I can’t reach that handhold from here.”

His response, “Not until you jump up.”

“With this one foot?” Dear sweet jesus. Jump from one foot from a slippery angled rock a quarter the size of my foot to extend one hand up to grab a rock with fingertips and pull myself up to get the other foot up to waist level. And if my right foot doesn’t make it up that high? I will fall.

This process of impossible-sounding directions followed by adrenaline-induced flurries of activity continue five or six more times. At one point, I say, “Sai, I am so afraid of heights right now.” He gently touches my back and says, “You are doing so good, madame. It is easy for you. Some people do not do so good, and I have to push and pull. But you do good on this.” I just laugh. He says, “No, you are strong. Your body is strong. Maybe your mind doesn’t think so.”

Well played, Sai. Well played.

I rest at the first place that is large enough to sit down and he says, “I take your picture, madame. You will see.” I sit in the dark and pull my camera from my pocket, honestly surprised it’s actually still there.IMG_20170802_105347568

“From here now, it’s easy.” Which is only a half-lie. Now it is jumping across three-foot gaps to foot-wide pedestals, but I have Sai to take my hand when my legs wobble after each leap. We eventually get out of the cave and I say, “Sai, I thought I may die in there.” His reply? “Oh, I know you don’t die.” Well, thank god one of us had faith in that knowledge.IMG_20170802_105828100-2

I tip him, thinking I ought to empty my wallet into this kid’s hands for keeping me alive, but I temper it with the thought that he’s the guy that led me into that cave in the first place.

It has been years since I’ve been that physically afraid. But I’d do it again in an adrenaline-fueled heartbeat.

First Things First

I get antsy. This is no secret to those who know me. Novelty and change feed me.

I know there’s a ton of stuff out there on mindfulness, and on finding novelty in the things you’re already experiencing regularly, but somehow  that itch seems to come back in the end in just about every situation. I don’t deny that I need to train my brain a bit more to find novelty in the familiar (notice the little things! use fresh eyes to see everything!), but daaaaaaaaaamn, completely novel experiences are delicious!

Several years ago, I found myself straining against the confines of Duluth after living there for seven years (multiple years longer than I had lived anywhere else in my adult life). In an attempt to find novelty in the familiar, I started a blog aptly named “One New Thing Each Week: Avoiding the seven year itch in my relationship with this city.” It’s not available anymore to view, but it was a series of new micro-adventures in Duluth (new beers! new restaurants! new events!). The blog kept me accountable, and I did log 52 new things in Duluth in a year. While it was all about exploring and finding novelty, perhaps the best thing that happened was that I pushed myself out of my comfort zone at least once a week in such a strong attempt to be able to stay put. Must’ve worked, because I still permanently live there!

I think as a society lately, people complete glamorize this desire to explore (read the online dating profiles of every man ever and you’ll see some derivation of either the word “explore” or “adventure”, regardless of how they actually live their daily lives). While I have come to recognize that there is a need for change at my core, it has also demolished some of the most amazing things I’ve ever had in my life. In this setting, though, I think I have found an amazing way to both be productive and experience change on a large scale.

There are few things in life that excite me as much as a “first.” But when every aspect of your life becomes firsts, things can become a bit overwhelming. I think this is what we people who are lucky enough to put ourselves into the middle of cultures that differ greatly from our own affectionately refer to as “culture shock.”

I may have mentioned that my current digs are in one of the nicest areas of town, with a high proportion of expats and tourists present. This makes for fewer experiences of feeling like an outsider (feeling like the record scratches when you walk into a space), but there are still so many situations where I do. I wander through the markets. Outsider. I sit down in a small restaurant. Outsider. I step outside of my apartment and smile at the guys playing cards across the street. Outsider. But with a good balance of what feels comfortable and new things, I feel like pushing myself to explore. This doesn’t feel like culture shock. It just feels shockingly good.

I was talking with a guy the other day who has been here about a month and he asked how long I’d been here. When I told him a week, he said he felt like a slouch for not having done any of the types of things I’d done. Now, I haven’t done anything that feels that outrageous, but it all does come from the seeking of firsts.

Every day, something new. A new food (malai helong flowers, mixes of things wrapped in banana leaves, Khmer curries). A new restaurant (that expat one that made me uncomfortable, that Khmer one tucked in the market). A new mode of transport (admission: tuk tuks aren’t new, but they were new to me here, and no driver ever knows where he’s going, a story for another day).  A new person to meet (other people working with kids with disabilities in town, teachers just arriving in town working for an organization that’s sponsoring the course I’m coordinating, random people just about anywhere). A new experience of any sort (going to a new market, volunteering with the Khmer Sight Foundation, running in the city, meditating at a local wat).

Now, these firsts are not typically comfortable, as thoughts like, “What the hell is going on here?” and, “Where the hell am I supposed to be going?” and “Why the hell am I here?” creep into my brain. But ultimately, I know that this mild discomfort that can be inherent in new experiences is what feeds me. Feeds me the most delicious stories one could ever hope to digest.

Outside of town in a tuk tuk
Measuring blood sugar before surgery for Khmer Sight Foundation (I just recorded results)
At Wat Langka where I did an hour-long Vipassana meditation
Malai Helong flowers (and crinkle cut carrots)