Moving to Cambodia…How I got to Phnom Penh
January 12, 2018
Moving to Cambodia
I am writing this blog from Phnom Penh, Cambodia. It was not my plan for this winter, but I found myself open to opportunities and one presented itself. I have a 6 month teaching contract at the Canadian International School of Phnom Penh. (cisp) They use the Alberta curriculum and I have a grade 5 class with 24 students.
I will share more about the school in future blogs. This is how I found myself in Cambodia.
Winter in Alberta
December 2017 arrived with cold and snow. I had subbed at my previous school and helping my mom after hip replacement surgery complications. We had completed our house renovations and were waiting for it to sell. The downturn of the local oil patch-based economy meant we had only 2 showings since the summer.
We weren’t sure where we going to be next winter so we booked a trip to Panama and Medellin, Columbia for January to check it out for retirement potential. We also found the perfect for us mobile home just 5 km out of Rocky Mountain House. It’s on a rented lot surrounded by forest. Possession was January 10. Everything was settled for the winter…
Come to Cambodia
I awoke one morning to an email from my friend and former colleague, Bernice. A teacher at her school in Phnom Penh had to leave at Christmas break and was I interested in a short-term contract. After initially dismissing the idea since we had our plans already made, Pete told me to just go if I wanted and he would stay home for a while and get the new place painted and floored.
I sent in my resume with the required Alberta teaching certificate number and that day had what I thought was going to be a Skype interview with the principal. With 2 former teachers from Rocky already at the school, and the fact I had done a professional development session at the school last February while we were living in Thailand, she really only wanted to know where to send the contract. By Dec 14 I had agreed to teach and live in Cambodia for 6 months. I had 3 weeks to get ready.
Preparing to move to Asia again
This called for the “whiteboard of planning”. I needed a large visual to finish planning for Christmas, a visit by our children, and preparations for this newest adventure. I needed to pack for 6 months, and include some teaching resources. Knowing that our house could sell while I am away meant that I wanted to go through a few more boxes and purge some last items that won’t fit in our new place. It was difficult to stay focused.
I was able to borrow a few resources from grade 5 teachers at my previous school, scanned them on the copier and emailed them to myself. That saved a lot of weight in my luggage. A few key books came along with me since I didn’t really know what resources would be available.
I packed lots of dresses and skorts since I knew what the climate was like, having lived in SE Asia last winter. I also went through our camping box and selected a few kitchen items I suspected would be missing in my new kitchen, like good knives, cheese grater, extra cutlery etc. To ensure I had something for breakfast for my first days of school, I added Instant oatmeal packets, just in case. I tried to buy another pair of sandals, but the stores said they had put the sandals away to make room for boots. That’s such a Canadian problem.
The airline allowed two 50 pound bags to Asia, which sounds like a lot. It is until you add 6 months of contact lens solution that’s not available in Cambodia, 2 pounds of coffee requested by my friends, and some Septo bac ordered to help with the septic tank in our buildings. With a little creative balancing in and out of my carry on, Melissa’s expert rolling of clothes and the use of zip lock bags to compact clothes, I was ready to go.
Travel to Phnom Penh
I had a great family time over Christmas and said good-by to everyone. We spent the last 2 nights in Banff, Canada before heading to the airport. I flew from Calgary to Vancouver to Hong Kong to Phnom Penh. My flight left at 10 pm on Wednesday and I arrived at 10:30 am on Friday. My luggage took an extra day to arrive but that’s a story for another day.
After paying $35 for a business visa, a driver from the school and my friend Nancy met me at the door. I bought a cell phone card just outside the airport for $5 which included 3 G of data and a few minutes of calling. That was it and it’s good for a month. Sure beats my plan at home.
My new job included a second floor furnished apartment about a 5 minute walk from the school. It has a bedroom and living area with high ceilings and lots of windows. Two of them have screens so I can get some air moving on occasion. There are lots of kitchen cupboards , a kettle, a coffee maker, a toaster, a sink with only cold water and a 2 burner cooktop. It is like camping. I also have a good-sized fridge and freezer. That’s not like camping.
The bedroom has a wardrobe with a few built-in drawers, a desk, TV and the usual hard bed found in Asia. The bathroom has a shower, sink and toilet. It took me a few days and lots of questions to discover that the hot water is turned on by a light switch on the outside of the bathroom. Both rooms have air conditioning units.
There are 2 washers downstairs and a drying rack on the balcony. My unit is along the side of a large house that’s been converted to 6 suites. It is surrounded by other houses so I don’t receive any direct sun, which is a good thing in a hot, sunny country. The school provides a night guard who sets up in the front yard every night. The community itself is called Elite Town and there are some spectacular homes in this gated community. I’ll share more pictures of those another day.
Bernice and her husband live in a highrise about 10 minutes from here. They made supper for me the first night. On our way home, we stopped in the grocery store in their building for a few supplies. Milk is $4 a liter, but local beer is only $10.50 for 24. I was able to buy Shredded Wheat–made in Canada– for just over $5 a box, about the same as at home. I also got a papaya for a dollar, peanut butter, eggs, canned tuna, cheese, shampoo etc. It was enough to get me started.
As this is a wealthy neighborhood, there are not the little shops we had in our Chiang Mai streets. There is a mall about 15 minutes away (all are walking times). It has high-end products and could be in any city in the world. It has a movie theatre as well as a skating rink with real ice! There are a couple of “dollar” stores where everything is priced at $1.90. Since Cambodia runs on American dollars, that is about $2.50 Canadian.
There is also a department store with a large grocery store, liquor store and bakery where I could find most of what I need. A tuk tuk home is $2-$3. My Sobey’s shopping bags and backpack are very handy when shopping on my own.
I will spend some time in the markets looking for interesting things, but for staples, the shopping nearby has been very convenient and reasonably priced.
With working every day, I don’t expect to post as frequently as last year, but I want to share what this city is like and how I’m adapting to a new place. I will also share how it is the same and different teaching in an International School.
Cambodia… A Country of Contradictions
March 5, 2017
Cambodia is an amazing country, even though it is full of contradictions. The people are very poor, but they smile so much. The countryside is green, but deforestation is occurring in the more populated areas. They ruled a mighty empire in the 12th century, but have been controlled by communism and the military in the recent past. They lost 2 million of their citizens in the 1970’s to disease, starvation and execution. These numbers included all the educated people as well as a generation or two of grandparents. The support of an extended family was eliminated. Those who survived feel great shame for allowing this to happen. And yet they still smile. We spent just over a week in this neighbor to Thailand and I learned so much about a country that I had been pretty ambivalent about for my whole life.
I was invited to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia by Bernice Pollock. I taught with her for 20 years in Rocky Mountain House. She is a brave traveller and is responsible for convincing me that we could live in Chiang Mai for a winter. She now teaches at the Canadian International School, along with Nancy, another colleague of ours from Rocky. Bernice invited me to come and spend a day helping their teachers with some planning strategies. Since this school teaches the Alberta Program of Studies, it was an easy match. It is a private school, owned by a Chinese family. Wealthy ex-pat’s children, who are mostly Asian, attend. They want a “Western” education for their children. The children are taught in English, or French and also receive some training in the Khmer language. It was another good reason to go and visit Phnom Penh.
Some contradictions in Phnom Penh
- really nice home next to yards filled with garbage
- wind trio performance in a luxury hotel garden while children are begging in the streets
- mostly empty office and condo complexes advertising lavish living near people subsisting in tin shacks
- master tailors creating clothes from a picture in a magazine working from a tiny booth in a market
- although most people have little and work hard, they gather in the parks every evening to exercise and eat together They play soccer and badminton, walk, do Tai Chi and Zumba. People filled the parks.
- they use the American dollar as their primary currency. They don’t use the coins, but instead have a local paper money called riel used as change.
- beautiful French Colonial architecture next to bare cement block construction
- traffic drives wherever it wants. Scooters travel in packs and take over a lane or sidewalk if necessary. There are few traffic lights and those wanting to turn against the flow just wait until there is a critical mass and start to turn, hoping that the other traffic will stop and wait.
The Killing Fields
To understand Cambodia, you need to visit this memorial. It is not easy, but it is necessary. It is recommended to also visit the S-21 Museum also known as the Tuol Sueng Genocide Museum, which is a meticulously documented torture location. We were not emotionally able to go there, although I did some reading about it.
We hired our airport driver to take us out to the Killing Fields (Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre). From the entrance it looks like a nice park with trees and chickens wandering around. It was early in the morning with few other people. Once we started listening to the audio guide, (an essential part of this tour), the atmosphere of the place completely changed.
After some years of civil war in Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge took control in 1975. Their leader, Pol Pot, wanted a classless peasant society where everyone was completely equal. He eliminated money, banks, religion and the right to own property. He sent all the people from the city to the countryside to grow rice where many died of starvation and disease.
All the teachers and educated people, as well as those with defects like needing glasses were taken to centers where they were forced to admit their crimes against the people. They were then taken in the dark to one of the hundreds of “Killing Fields” around the country where they were beaten to death and buried in mass graves. The genocide ended in 1979 when 60 000 Vietnamese troops invaded Phnom Penh. Although the people of Cambodia now hold elections, it is a one-party system as the opposition leader was exiled and has recently resigned after a law passed that would not allow him to participate in politics.
Our driver came in and walked quietly around the area. On our way back he told us he had been a young boy during this time and his job was to look after the cows used in the rice fields. His father was a blacksmith and they were allowed to survive. He told us that they were only given 2 bowls of rice to eat each day. If someone found a chicken and killed it for food, they would be killed. “Everyone was very thin,” was the comment made by Mr. Saran.
Killing Fields Tour
You can see the areas where the mass graves were dug. They have opened many of them to study the cause of death and to memorialize the victims. There are still sections where bits of clothing or bones or teeth resurface on their own during the rainy season.
There was a tree there that had such horrific purpose that I couldn’t even take a picture of it. They would swing toddlers’ heads against it while their mothers watched. The Khmer Rouge believed they had to, “kill the root so they would not come back for revenge.”
There has been a stupa built as a memorial to many of the victims of this genocide. It is filled with 500o skulls found in the graves here. They are categorized by age and cause of death. It is difficult to see but makes it so real.
What is my responsibility?
It is impossible for me to deny that such a thing happened in my lifetime. Yet, I was oblivious to it. Rwanda, Syria, Somalia and others all tell similar stories. What is my responsibility? I was born in a time and place that protected me from this kind of violence. I am hoping that at least by sharing this story, others will question our responsibility to the people of the world who have no voice. People making racist or bigoted remarks about others is an example of this on a smaller scale than genodice but is a situation that I can no longer tolerate without action. We all need to speak up!