Day 2 @ Koh Sralao – Exploration

walking steadily on 2 planks
finding our way to the spring

A man climbs up the tree to loosen the coconut, another picks them from below

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Goodbye Cambodia!

Tonight marks the end. I love field studies, I learn so much within the 2 weeks outdoors, in the field, it extends beyond all that I (can) learn within the confines of the classroom. I love how I (almost incidentally) stumbled into Geography, and how Geography has brought me to this – discovering this one thing I can say I truly enjoy, coming closer to the local way of living than I could ever have done on my own.

It’s one thing to read and study things on books and readings, and a completely different other to speak with these local villagers to hear how their views mirror all that you’ve read about; only then does it register how real everything is – how pertinent these issues are. Issues of infant mortality, education, gender roles and relations, corruption and a lack of a system, spirits and black magic in natural resources. More than ever I witness the reality of it; more than ever I feel like I came face-to-face with what I knew to be the poverty trap, a cycle, and how… helpless, truly limited, they can be. 
The 6 weeks in Thailand was a little different; for this Cambodia trip it opened my eyes alot more to structural inequalities and social issues. Forever I will remember the nights I lay with my fingers outstretched and realising I was completely shrouded by the darkness of the night, blinded to everything around me, as the crickets chirped noisily away; forever I will remember that surge of relief I felt for the sun as rays of its sunbeam trickled along the tiny cracks of the walls into the wooden planks of the room to enable my vision – that intense gratitude I felt for now being able to see. I will remember the days I felt so confined within the home, unable to run and leap freely as I wished, waiting for a boat to take me elsewhere along the lake; the days I put on a sarong and showered under the glowing stars. How I tried to put on my best smile as I felt a slight pang of disappointment the first day I ate rice, with what I (despite my best efforts to not be a spoilt brat) felt was a rather miserable meal of soup with carrots – I had never experienced poverty so poignantly reflected in a meal. Most of all, I will always remember how village life ends after afew nights, where I get to go back to sleep on the soft bed of a hotel, basking in the aircon and snuggled up against my pillow while my hosts remain in the everyday of their village, their lives ongoing just as they were. I got to experience a tinge of their lives, perhaps the better of their days, and then I got to leave. For them, they have no choice but to remain.
In saying this I’m not making a spectacle of their poverty, neither am I insisting they’d prefer my way of life, and that mine is necessarily superior in any sense. But having witnessed their ways of life made me see more than ever how much more I prefer mine, and how absolutely much more I truly, truly had.

I love field studies because it reminds me of how real everything is 
I love travelling because it makes me feel alive
Ending with a gift from Dr Carl, how pertinent, how true:

‘I soon realised that no journey carries one far unless, as it extends into the world around us, it goes an equal distance into the world within’


– Lillian Smith


the piece of Cambodia

fragmented and poorly written, but suffice to store the memory – 

23 Sept 2014 – 11:11pm – Hotel @ Pnom Penh
Something pretty powerful happened to me today, by which I remain shaken. I hope they know how they have affected me.
As I hold the bracelets in my hand now, I feel like this will always be the piece of Cambodia that stays with me. I still feel some sort of chill down my spine recalling the memory. So tonight after dinner some people on our team spotted these girls outside the restaurant, the same kids that pestered / cursed / swore the day before upon being rejected to buy a bracelet from them. As we walked the rest went ahead, and I asked the girls, “how are you?” “10”, “8”, they replied. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” “Lawyer,” she said. I told her, “do you know that your English is very good?”, it was the first thing I noticed. “how was your day?””what did you do today?” She said she had to sell, and that today was good, and yesterday was bad. I asked her, “are you happy today?” And I told her her English was really good, and if she reads. I told her she should read more. As we walked on she suddenly gave me, much to my surprise, a friendship bracelet that she was selling. “Here, this is for you, for free”. And I said no, it’s okay, admittedly at the back of my head I was suspicious of the possibility of tricks up their sleeves. She said, no, it’s for you, and ran off. Later on the younger girl (8 years old) came up behind me and I talked to her for a little bit, and she gave me an orange bracelet, and said it’s for me.
As we parted I said goodnight, and skipped back to join the crowd. I am truly moved, and it was truly powerful, that moment when she (almost shyly) insisted on giving me the bracelet. Thank you, thank you. I don’t know what it was exactly – which line it was – that made you decide to it, but you did touch my life. I told myself that the next time I bump into such girls again, I will ask them if they want icecream. You know, if they were not within the conditions that they were in, they would be so much more. I just truly hope that something I said awaken a spark within them. I know how important it is to have someone, anyone, believe in you to be better than who you were.
This moment is a grain of sand that’s part of something larger – a greater picture, broader canvas. I know for sure. This is one of the moments I will look back again and suspect it pushed the tides this way to mould the beach, the route ahead. Thank you! 🙂 
(I do admit that in the context of Cambodia, part of me feels a little unsettled, half-expecting myself to bump into some group of rowdy boys who’d extort money from me, or got them to hunt me down at my door the next day. I hope this is all to be, and they understand and carry my words with them.)

‘I turned back and shouted ‘goodnight’, seeing the last of their shadows running into the corners of the street. ‘

Onward to Koh Sralao – Examining the Urban Landscape

22nd Sept 2014 – departing Kampong Luong to Pnom Penh
I must always remember that even after my project and (brief) research has ended, and I have departed, their lives go on. Their everyday routines go on. This… Waiting for fish to grow, cooking, waiting for night to fall, paddling to places… (Where else?) Not demeaning their way of life, but… I have much more (to live for??) The opportunities to travel. The poverty cycle / trap is real. “What else can we do?” I don’t have an answer for that. That woman in the shaking hut, fishing one days by days – what else can she do? It is this question, and the lack of answers –  the knowing that it is not due to their laziness, or reluctance to do otherwise, but how limited they are – what else can she do?
Their stories are real. And here I am, moving on. C’est la vie. Always, always privileged to be born where I am, to be here today. Sometimes, though, I feel like… Can we really help? Yet… Still, I wish my host mother and her kind smile, and the people, children of Kampong Luong well.

Here, we worked on examining the urban landscape of Pnom Penh. Rich-poor divide, resettlement of slum communities, the new urban poor…

22 Sept 2014 – Pnom Penh – Hotel, comfy sheltered place
At this point I’m comfortably slouched over my pillow, in an aircon room and a flushable toilet. With toilet paper. It has been an eventful day. I cannot help thinking about the lifestyle the past 2 (only?) nights, and how at this point, I could picture my hosts asleep. At 5am they would awake, eat, feed the fishes, talk to other women, sun sets, eat, sleep… Or am I simplifying things? Probably am, I’m neglecting the complexities of human relations and human emotions, and all those stories. And yet, I think about how I go there as a researcher, I live their lifestyles, understand a little more, and then Ieave. And they are there, confined to the waters. I cannot help but feel like my heart goes out to them, the constraints… They are so real. I only wish then happiness, and to get by with ease. Also for good weather to weather the storms.
At night, we went for dinner at this place. Shamraz told me a story. It was a story about a girl who experienced this limbo between life and death, and within this limbo she could jump to different timelines and experience her parallel universes and multiple ways of life, bear witness to the different decisions that shaped her lives so differently.
“And then?” I asked.
“And then the story ends,” he says, laughing at my infuriating at such an unsatisfactory ending.
A ‘concept’, rather than a fiction, really. Ah, how tiny events, a minuscule of a second, a decision of whether or not to turn back, to charge your phone, to scratch your nose and sneeze – E-V-E-R-Y-T-H-I-N-G – what’s that then, the butterfly effect? How some gesture, however seemingly insignificant, moments that shape your life, how different things would otherwise turn out. Everything happens for a reason – wait for the reason to emerge, to make itself known. 🙂
It was a pretty lovely night, I remembered my sociable self again. Ah, human connections and the sort of rejuvenation it gives. 🙂
I guess if there’s one thing that I can say makes me incredibly happy, it’s this – travelling.
Doing field research overseas, if I were to be frank, is one of my favoritest things to do in the world. I may not have done a lot, but thus far engaging in another’s way of life and attempting to understand the issues involved can be immensely fulfilling. I sense projects coming up for my future travels, if I’m keen.

Koh Sralao, Homestay with Sayut

24 Sept 2014 Koh Sralao Village, Province of Koh Kong
So this was the homestay they were talking about, I couldn’t help thinking as I sat in this hut. For dinner we had some rice, soup with carrots and celery (it was nice, homely) and some chicken (bones) with ginger. They did not join us for the meal, and I couldn’t help wondering if we were taking up their share of the food for the night.
We spoke to the host of the house tonight, a 72 year old man who’s been married to his wife for more than 50 years. They were married when they were 16, and had met in school in a nearby province. She had 17 pregnancies before, by which only one daughter remained today. 7 miscarriages, 4 passed on during the Khmer Rouge, and the rest.. Fever, perhaps.
He had moved here from Preyvent province in 1982, previously working at a government hospital before they sent him here. Something like the Ministry of Health. They had since stayed here, set up this little house and lived here since.
Pi and Srey Nead
Sayut (72m) Bern (wife) Piak Dai (son 17) Tiere (daughter of Sayut), Mik Nea (March) (son of Tiere)
The Khmer Rouge – why did they kill? He didn’t know. Life then was tough.
What was the happiest moment of his life? I told Wee to ask. He said, he didn’t have much, he doesn’t have much money, all he has is his family, and being with his wife, his family makes him happy. Kristal and I ‘awwed’ in unison.
Did he have any advice for us?
Unlike Cambodia, he did not have a lot of money in his work, so we should always take hold of whatever opportunities, because over here, he does not have much opportunities.
Could he give us a Khmer name?
Srey noch and srey nit (ned) – meaning beautiful and smart, and ned is the sibling. There’s something about naming, and being named, that creates a sense of attachment. 
I wanted to show him some pictures on my phone. As silly as it sounds, I feel so ashamed of all that I have. I scrolled past the pictures, the Dimsum I had, and I felt strangely ashamed to show him.
When I awoke this morning I felt thankful for the sun – even the sun was a blessing and a privilege, I realised. I guess I’d never thought of the sun in this light before, how important it was, for the sun’s rays to shine in for me to see. I’ve considered it before, but from last night this was particularly poignant.

Morning, 25 Sept – Even the rising sun is such a blessing. Gosh, at night time I open my eyes and I can see absolutely nothing. As we navigate our ways to the toilet, behind us is pitch darkness and we see only a meter ahead.

27 Sept 2014 – Asian Hotel
How time flies. 3 nights passed, just like that. 2nd night of sleeping was fine, showering got easier, last night I even peed at the ‘outdoors’ rather than a toilet. How adaptable! Hehe. Sometimes I think I can stay in a village for a year. Maybe not years like 5 years, but 1 year is entirely possible, I think. Today afternoon I taught Srey Noch ‘apple’, ‘banana’, etc words as she scrawled clumsily across her chalkboard. Another boy joined in and we flipped the textbook for images which I said aloud in English, and made them repeat. It was lovely, and sometimes, I do wonder if I would have gone that route if not for MOE. I think, really, I very well might have – after today’s experience, and that of afew days ago. Who knows, right? Maybe when I’m 27 (ah, opportunity costs…) or… Well, well. Not raising any expectations for myself. Right now I’m just listening to acoustic music in my room, in aircon, alone. Ultimate therapeutic environment. Blankie, aircon, pillow, music, and a writing journal. I actually love writing, pen to paper, I miss it, these endless scribblings and writing. I could go on forever, endless words that fill up pages – except I can’t bear to fill these beautifully printed pages with crappy insignificant ramblings. 
I feel like I’m getting in touch with my past self again, my younger self, and possibly the self that I was, the self that I could have been. At present I feel kind of… Contented? Rekindling (TRYING to rekindle, very much more like) with my first true loves – reading, writing, having deep conversations. Travelling. A certain someone, as I’ve come to admit, reminds me of that person, that person that I was, or could have been, and I am jealous, I am 😦 But as I splashed furiously in the muddy waters today, I did wonder if my past self would have been as ready as I am. Maybe yes, but more so I feel like a part of me wants to reinforce that identity of wandering in forests and muddy mangroves. Then again, it was always there, I think, creeping beneath. I’m somewhat worried that I’ll finish this journal and fill it with low-quality crappy thoughts and phrases. Tomorrow there’s r&r, and right now, frankly, I want to stay in the room alone, with the freedom to do whatever I want – chill in the room, sleep, music. 

Floating Lives of the Tonle Sap, Kampong Luong

Good morning! Aroun suostei!
Breakfast!

20 Sept – Fishing Village
The days feel, surprisingly, long. Maybe because the night itself felt (terribly) long; I wake up every few hours with a nagging suspicion that I had something crawling across my face. Eventually I heard the village come alive again with the crack of dawn; from the corner of my sleepy eyes I could see the hues of pink and orange blending into a canvas of beauty. Too lazy to pull myself up, the sunset will do, I thought.
Today was Fieldwork Day. Many times I thought – if only I could speak Khmer! I would hop from households to households. Research, being a researcher here, would likely encounter a language barrier don’t you think? Stemming from structural inequalities – lack of access to education = decrease in % of Geog / social sciences / other important disciplines’ researchers = decrease in % of researchers = decrease in % of researchers keen on working in local issues = decrease research on the lake, which is actually really key to the area, to find out their needs.
Tonight was lovely though, I find myself embracing nature as it is, and assimilating in the local lifestyle. As Kristal mentioned, “Look what village life has done to you!” (Lights are off – I’m writing in the dim) I took a longer shower tonight, I washed my hair, unabashedly walking out wrapped in a sarong and letting the scooped water caress my hair. I dangled my feet along the edge of the plank and looked joyously at the sky – the stars. Tonight they were brighter than before; my heart sang for a little bit. When I wrapped myself in I used a towel to dry myself, and found a tiny cockroach on its edge. I calmly tried to shake it off, and when it didn’t I kind of scraped it at its edge. My heart barely skipped a beat, and that surprised myself. Ah, how village life has changed me! (At least a teeny bit) I love the idea of bathing in rivers, I must say. In any case, our research findings correlate to all that I’ve known / read about village life, which reminds me of the importance of research. I wish more research can be done on rural areas. Thinking about it now, Dr Carl, Rigg etc etc rural geographers are really great people, embracing the challenges yet contributing to understandings of such marginalized groups. Thinking about it now perhaps I did not push myself for my thesis. I chose me. Still, perhaps in the future… Then again, everything happens for a reason, something I’m clear about on its own.
Goodnight!
X, siangyee



Field Investigation: Cambodia (Kampong Luong)

This series of posts are copied from my handwritten journal. I’ve forgotten how much I love the feeling of pen to paper; at the same time I find it necessary (and safe) to keep a digital copy. 🙂 It’s been a lovely 2 weeks, and I don’t want to lose these bits like I’ve lost the bits of FS, so here they go 🙂

When I first entered Kampong Luong, I thought: Isn’t all these so incredible and amazing? I feel like I’m granted a privilege to sneak to peek at the lives of these people, and how they manage their ways of life. How adaptable humans are!

19 Sept – Kampong Luong Fishing Village
Today I wrapped myself in a sarong, sat on the wooden planks at the front of my host’s house and showered with the water of the Tonle Sap, under the night sky of stars. And I loved it, I feel that surge of joy once again – that same familiar joy I got from FS.
Of course, a part of me secretly knows that this is only because it’s a one-time experience for me – rowing boats as the only way to navigate (to school, markets, neighbors…), living with the ways they do, having to uproot their homes and to shift them some kilometers away every few months along with the rising tides of the lake… But they make do. Solar panels to power the switches. Looking up and having the lizards blinking nonchalantly above you. Such ways of life.

I forgot what writing, pen to paper, is like. It’s been far too many years. No backspacing, no deletions, no edits – my thoughts and words pure in form, I suppose. Not to mention the flurried, scribble handwriting that captures my mood I suppose. At this point, the page has ended and hence I hurry off –
House tour:

 View opposite our humble abode

 Shower space – here, I dangled my feet off the planks and washed my hair under the stars

 Toilet, everything goes into the lake… and 5m away, they wash the bowls………

 Kitchen

At night, I could hear fishes splashing beneath me