It's So Real

Dealing with the tragedies of the past week has not been easy. I cannot say whether it is harder or easier than being at home, but it is definitely different. Much of the reading I have been doing surrounds social justice throughout the world. Much of the living I have done has helped me understand marginalization.

I should share with you that there are probably only two things unique about these posts: 1) you know me so that impacts how you process my words. 2) I am having this transition or awakening in a relative vacuum here in Thailand.

Otherwise, you can expect to hear the voice of yet another white male coming to understand his privilege. How that privilege has shaped a huge portion of my life, and how I interact with the world. There are at least hundreds, hopefully thousands of thousands of men like me out there who have had nearly the same experience. I am aware that many have already written about the experience, and have likely done it more eloquently.

Much of the content I will be sharing this week has been in the works for months. I cannot keep it to myself any longer, and I can no longer try to perfect it. I am putting it out there with its imperfections and the knowledge that I have no control over what will come. But maybe, just one person will begin their journey to greater understanding because of it. That hope is more than enough for me.

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Note: At the end of the post are some photos of the beautiful sunsets we have been having at the beginning of the rainy season.

So many of us experience discontent in our lives. Sometimes the discontent is chronic, sometimes it comes after reaching specific milestones, or sometimes it sneaks in shortly after achieving a goal we had been striving for. 

This week I share a personal experience with discontent and my progress toward living a life with a little more purpose, and hopefully a little less regret. Living my life in a way that when my values change, my past actions are less likely to feel invalid.

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Bahng Fai!!!

We keep having amazing experiences in rapid fire. I have yet to write posts about our time in Siem Reap, Cambodia or the SongKran festival in Thailand. I am going to skip ahead to our experience from May 29. I promise that I intend to get back to those other highlights.

A few months ago my co-worker Krisida told me about a festival in his town where they fire off rockets. He said they do this before the rainy season to anger the gods and make it rain. Friday the 27th, Krisida asked if I remembered it and would we like to go. I said yes and jokingly asked “is it tomorrow?” He laughed, said no, and then called his wife to find out when it was - Sunday. Susan and I had no plans, so we were in - Pick us up at 11 (he said “Thai time”).

Sunday came and we were packed and ready, relaxed and reading when we got a call that he was running late. A morning deluge of rain, but by the time he arrived at 1:00 it was clearing up. I drove us the 45 kilometers to his home, and his father-in-law gave a chuckle when I got exited the driver's seat.

After lunch, we jumped in their friend's care and drove the 5 minutes to the town market and pavilion. There was loud music and people were drinking and dancing - a lot. Bottles of rum and whiskey, carts lined around the pavilion selling food, and drinks of all kinds. We enjoyed the music, danced a bit, and took selfies with a few people before walking off with Krisida and his son.

We headed to the field where the rockets were loudly firing off. Krisida says since the day is later then expected is it okay if we spend the night? We look at each other and say sure, but we don't have anything but a rain coat (the one time we travel light).

I was expecting the types of model rockets kids and dads make together in the United States, of course I was wrong. These are like giant, homemade, bottle rockets: made out of PVC pipe, wrapped with mylar, stuffed with propellant, and having a long bamboo stick attached. I was told that these were “long-tail rockets. Other villages have short tail rockets, or as I saw later on the news have horizontal firing rockets.

We sloshed our way into the muddy field filled with people and vehicles are all over finishing or polishing their rockets. Monks in mass are working on different rockets and some are blessing them, “rockets are the hobby of the monks” Krisida tells me. There was a ceremonial rocket built by monks that was fired off early in the morning. We stand and watch a few go off. It is a loud, neat, and intimidating experience. Then we walk back to the pavilion. 

At this point, Krisida has to leave because a school teacher from his youth is severely ill and he has no family to help care for him. We spend the rest of the evening with his family. Ning (Krisida’s wife) is constantly checking in with us as we take in the party and dance some more. One man decides we are friends, he won't likely remember much of the evening, and around 7:30 we head back to the house for dinner.

Ning has procured us American sized clothing, so we shower at their house and change into shorts and t-shirts. Ning’s mother is cooking on a small charcoal stove in the kitchen of their stilted house. This is the first time I have smelled beef cooking since I arrived here. What a fantastic smell that is, and I tell her so.


They know that I love sticky rice so that is what we tend to eat with them. During dinner, 2 neighbors come up the stairs on separate occasions and talk to us all for about 15 minutes each. After dinner, we sit and watch Muay Thai boxing and the news for a bit, while Krisida’s 3 year-old son runs around naked after his bath. We seem to laugh all night long, and at one point I look at Susan and say, “How amazing is this?” 

We head to bed and are sleeping in the main room with Ning’s parents (hopefully I don’t snore too loud.) The mattress is firm, the mosquito net has a whole or 2, and the ceiling is tin. I wake up several times throughout the night, but fall off again easily. The rain comes loud and then soothing.

In the morning I fight the urge to jump out of bed, because there is really nothing for me to do. I enjoy watching the morning routine as Ning's mother sweeps the house, both parents talk and joke with the neighbors from inside their house (the kitchen and main living area only has 3 walls), and then Ning’s dad goes out and catches us some fantastic fish for breakfast.

And then we are off, running late as Krisida often does, for a rainy Monday morning commute after a not insignificant Sunday.

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Phnom Penh, Cambodia

After loading our bus in Ho Chi Minh, I found myself saddened to leave Vietnam so quickly. I lacked excitement for Phnom Penh, and had few expectations for the capital city. Part of me was already looking ahead to Angkor Wat.

Nearing the Vietnam-Cambodia border, the landscape had started to change. The land was desert-like - dry, tan sand and cracked, barren fields plowed much the way rice fields are in Thailand but the earth around us in Thailand has an iron-rich red to it.

We saw ground level buildings with dirt floors (cement floors are especially important for health). We travelled through small towns on the “highway” - a 2-lane blacktop road. We would travel through towns and occasionally see signs for “economic areas.” Gated roads leading to fenced in complexes of barracks style homes and steel warehouses many times larger than any village or town we crossed through. The poverty in Cambodia was already clear.

We arrived at Phnom Penh, grabbed our backpacks, and were off in a flash to find our hotel. It was late afternoon and we were ready to explore after being cooped up in the bus. We easily found the SLA hostel, and were very pleased with our accommodations. Aaron and I grabbed a happy hour $0.75 beer (with a pull-tab) while we unloaded, showered, and prepared to find some dinner. 

We walked to the main area of town to stroll along the riverfront, and stopped at a Foreign Correspondents Club with a view - it had allegedly been a haunt of Hemingway. We enjoyed some light conversation of topics like how best to survive a fall from our 3rd floor location (spawned by a cat precariously navigating a precipice) and then digressed into the difference between a democracy and a republic, and somehow what the Bronze age is. Susan and Heather kindly tolerated us as always or corrected us as necessary..

We left and strolled past the lighted Royal Palace being outfitted for Cambodia’s SongKran festival, and then Aaron kicked a ball with some Cambodia boys on the street. After - and by now starving - we happened along a restaurant that A+H had read about. We stopped in and Aaron was the winner when he chose the local dish - Fish Amok a type of curry dish that is cooked in banana leaf. It was amazing. Susan and I missed the mark with our meal choices, but we were satiated nonetheless. We were all humbled when we asked the desk attendant if he enjoyed Fish Amok and smiled and said he loved it but can rarely afford it.

Everyone up and moving by 6:30, after a light breakfast of fruit and toast we were off.  People marveled at the crazy westerners who continue to walk everywhere in the heat. We started out at the Royal Palace and home of the Silver Pagoda. A beautiful place with lots of intricate buildings to look at, wall painting, jade Buddha’s and other precious items collected by Cambodian Royalty. We walked on to the liberation monument, and were tailed by the soccer-playing boys from the night before. Not a lot to see at liberation monument, so Aaron negotiated us a TukTuk to the Russian Market.

We kind of split up as we walked into the Russian Market. We stopped and looked at trinkets, but any interest drew the shop owner and immediate offers for sale. The location was giant with narrow isles through endless vendors. At one point we were stopped and talking about something we liked, and another man walked up selling cards printed by disabled people. The stress was enough to crack me. I stepped outside to breathe and cry for a second. After composing myself I told Susan that she could shop or not, but I could not. It is just clear that items are marked up a lot, but also people are desperate for a sale as prices would go from $4 - $2 - $1 with each step.

We all had a nice lunch inside the Russian market, sitting at a counter inside the dark building surrounded my the smells of all the food cooking and the hot, musty smell of a building with sweaty bodies and wares being sold. Part of the market was even like a hardware store - they had almost everything.

Later I devised my own bartering method - if I like something, I first decide what it is worth to me and then I offer to pay that. If I overpay, maybe it’s because I overvalue the item, but I am not just trying to get a better price from someone who likely needs the money more than me. No judgment on other people’s bargaining/bartering, this is just what works for my conscience and temperament.

After lunch, we all headed over to Tuol Sleng - a school that was converted to a haven of torture within the walls of the city. It was emotionally challenging, but one of those historic landmarks and culturally significant places to visit as a world citizen. We learned:

  • Pol Pot drove millions of people from the city, telling them Americans were coming to bomb the city again.
  • The people left by foot and then were taken to work camps where a communistic utopia was to exist as everyone worked the fields together.
  • In truth, people starved and literally worked until they were dead. Pol Pot even commanded that machines not be used, so tractors sat idle as people manually plowed the fields.
  • The site was used to torture anyone seen as a threat or dissenter. Children, women, and even his former advisers were tortured here before being sent to the killing fields.

We left Tuol Sleng quiet, but reflective and glad we had visited. We then headed to:

  • the central market to see one of the world’s 10 largest domes
  • The Elephant Bar for a fancy cocktail
  • a sunset boat cruise for $7 each. 
    • It was a beautiful way to see the city skyline
    • We also saw some fishing communities up close. They live on the banks of the river, juxtaposed strikingly against a mega-hotel.

Not to spoil the remainder of the trip, but Phnom Penh was a clear highlight. I would love to return and explore more of the secrets that this city holds.

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We'll always have HoChiMinh!

3 vacation during a year of service, seems, well - luxurious and discordant. And honestly, it has been both.  We have largely ignored our stipend and accepted the generosity of others to make vacations fabulous. Each of these vacations has come with mixed feelings and an appreciation for the privilege we have of seeing and learning from the world.I will never understand how I can fly to another country for $30, take an 8-hour bus ride for $15, eat a filling meal for $1.50, or 4 of us can get a good night’s sleep, warm shower, breakfast, and internet for under $30. 

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Out of Office

Out of Office

I cannot believe it has been nearly a month since you all heard from me. I can tell you that it has been quite a whirlwind.

I cannot catch you up right now, but I will be working on it over the coming weeks. Susan and I had another wonderful vacation with lovely friends, an amazing cultural holiday (SongKran), and my brother spent 2 weeks with us as well! Sadly, we have also had stress, illness, and immense tragedy. As I make time to process, grieve, relive our experiences through photographs, and heal, I am sure to have a lot to share.

If you are desperate for my writing, I worked with a dear friend and have a blog post on his website ThinkThank.org . There is a direct link to the article inside this blog - it is is about as light as my writing gets! I hope you enjoy.

Lots of love and I will have more to share very soon. I promise.



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