How special is Cambodia to me?
It becomes readily apparent when I approach the passport control desk in Siem Reap. The officer turns the pages of my passport and responds “welcome home Mrs. Duffy”.
It’s my 10th visit in 6 years and I’m excited to see the
28 Cambodian girls who affectionately call me “Mom”.
It’s late at night when I arrive with my daughter and husband but, it’s clear word has gotten out amongst the girls about my pending arrival. My IM account starts beeping upon arrival in Siem Reap and I know the girls are anxious to see us. They know it will be a fun and exciting week and a welcome break from their daily routine of chores and studying. I come bearing goodies of all kinds including Trader Joe’s chocolate cookie dough spread. 10 jars and many bags of pretzels later and it’s gone in minutes. They don’t get chocolate often if ever. The heat and the expense make it prohibitive.
Arts and crafts are always on our agenda. This is something most Cambodians have never experienced at home or at school. What teenage girl doesn’t love arts and crafts? T-shirt decorating, mirror painting and collage making kick off the start of the week. To watch the smiles and laughter when the girls start to paint is just such a great feeling. So little brings so much joy!
For the first time ever we attempt an ice cream party. To watch us transporting ice cream and toppings, in plastic wash tubs filled with ice, in an open air Tuc Tuc, in 100 degree heat, was hysterical. But we pulled it off!
Each afternoon, when we would leave the girls' house, we would start planning our nightly activities for another group of girls. These are the girls who once resided at the PAGE house but have since graduated and are now working and going to school. Many of these graduates still live in the area and they are also anxious to see us. Years ago, I started taking some of the recent graduates to dinner every evening. That has now transformed into a nightly reservation for 18-20. We seemed to have expanded beyond just the girls to boyfriends, husbands, friends and family. Other than the PAGE graduates most of the other attendees don’t even speak English! It's funny to look around the table and see Uncle Sarem staring back at you smiling and not knowing one word of Khmer. All kidding aside,It is so much fun to see how these girls are transforming into young women before my eyes. For the most part they are managing through some of the most difficult situations and trying to stay focused on completing their education but, it clearly is no easy task. Working full time and going to school ,while still having to send money to their families, is a lot of pressure for someone just entering adulthood. My visit always culminates with a party and a couple of pinatas. It’s so much fun but, always so bittersweet to know it will be some time before we see each other again. “It’s not goodbye but see you later” I say to the girls.
Before I depart I manage to visit my favorite village for ceramics. Each piece is handmade and unique to each artist. The owner recognizes me immediately and says he will now offer me a discount he only saves for his best customers. I also know that it is low season and he is anxious for some sales.
I also stop in another village to check in with my some weavers who are working on more placemats and napkins for the store. Handmade products, small artisianal workshops and and age old craftsmanship are something I can’t get enough of.
Before I leave Cambodia I make one last stop at Ta Prohmn
Temple. In all the times I have been to Cambodia,I have never visited this site.
This is the temple made famous by Angelina Jolie in the Tomb Raiders. It’s in much of the same condition in which it was found: a combination of trees growing out of the ruins deep in the jungle. It’s quite a site and I would recommend going early in the morning because it is unbearably hot and was crowded, even in the off season.
Next stop, Myanmar, formerly Burma.
Myanmar has always fascinated me. Twenty five years ago my husband and I visited the border between Myanmar and Thailand. I remember watching the droves of people crossing over the border into Thailand each morning looking for work. It was, and still is, a desperately poor country and at that time,most Burmese had never seen a foreigner. Clearly no one with fair skin, light hair and blue eyes. I remember standing at the border crossing admiring their traditional dress. Little did I know that I was more interesting to them. They wanted to touch my face and hair. It was just a little unsettling. Each evening they would have to make the trek across the border back home. Getting out of this country was almost as difficult as getting in. Myanmar has suffered for years under a brutal military regime until the countries heroine, Aung San Suu Kyi, won in a landslide in the country’s first democratic election. Aung San Suu Kyi was held captive in her own home for almost 15 years by the military rulers. Recently opened to tourism, Myanmar was always on my bucket list and I was eager to start this part of my adventure.
We landed in Ragon, Myanmar which is the country’s largest city. It’s much more developed than Siem Reap. It’s also a much more conservative country than Cambodia. Most women still wear the traditional ankle length silk skirt,called a longyi, that is adorned with some intricate embroidery. There are far fewer westerners on th streets of Ragon. Strangers came up to us asking to take our pictures. I was told it was a sense of pride to have a picture hanging in your house with a foreigner, even if you don’t know the person. You’ll also quickly notice that most Burmese men and women wear a chalky mask on their faces. It’s made from a natural tree pulp and it’s supposed to be a sign of beauty while offering sunscreen and other benefits. Even babies have their faces adorned with this mask.
On our first day we took the ferry from Ragon over to Bagan. It's a short ride to Bagan and well worth the visit. There are no cars in Bagan and I wanted to visit some of the local artisans. My transportation around Bagan was a Burmese version of a rickshaw.
Of we went to my first stop. I was told there was a candle maker there who has been making candles the same way for the past 100 years. It was an amazing site to see. Big cauldrons of boiling wax being hand poured into tiny birthday candle sized molds. It must have been 120 degree in "rustic" barn.
My favorite part of traveling is seeking out local artisans. This was well worth the visit.
My second day in Ragon included a visit to Scotts market. It's a large sprawling market that sells everything from jewelry and silk to jade. I am in my glory searching for new and exciting pieces to bring back to the shop. Mother of pearl, silk and embroidered bags were just a few of favorite purchases.
If you come,there are few ATM's so make sure you exchange money at your hotel. Credit cards are not excepted and neither are US dollars.
I've been to Bangkok at least 4 times. It's a big,busy and congested city. My main reason in visiting Bangkok is to go to the world famous Chatuchak Market. It's only open Friday evening through Sunday evening. It contains everything from rare and exotic animals to cutting edge clothing designers and housewares. I love this market and it continues to fascinate me. The Thai vendors love to bargain and it becomes silly when you realize your fighting over pennies. You can get lost in this market and it's advisable to take a map. We spent 8 hours there one day and only covered 1/3 of the market. I think I like it so much because, many of the Asian markets I visit, I see the same items over and over again. This market is unique and contains many local designers selling one of a kind items.
My next stop in Bangkok is to Siam Discovery. I have been very fortunate in my business to experience double digit growth. I'd like to think it's because I seek out the unique and unusual and create a shopping experience that is not the norm in the US. I am always on the look out for cutting edge lifestyle retailers that I can learn from. I hit the jackpot with Siam Discovery.
Normally ,when I hear the word mall I think of cookie cutter stores selling mass produced items. This mall was the exception. It's hard to describe why it was so special. I headed straight up to the home accessories section and it didn't disappoint me. Row after row of long tables divided into small sections. Each section displayed a very small sampling of one-of-a kind artist and home ware designers. Each designer had their web site prominently displayed and a bar code to scan if you wanted to view,or purchase, more items from the vendor. It just made shopping such a adventure. Siam Discovery was all about discovery and it didn't disappoint. It even had an interactive exhibit where you type in your Instagram account and 100's of small monitors create a visual collage of you account. I would call the whole experience part shopping and part museum.
Until my next trip....thanks for following!