Monday, January 30, 2012

Cambodia 2012 - Perspective

Disclaimer: I tend to write with a happy, 'there's always a silver lining' demeanor. But sometimes there are times when you travel that you do see something horrific, especially when you go to the Third World. I've seen death, starvation, prostitution, and the stranglehold that the 'civilized' world has on many poor countries. It's something you can't read about or see in a documentary. You have to experience it. Even now I can see how futile it is to put my feelings into words on a subject like this, as you can't truly understand it unless you've been there. This is for me as a writer: to release these feelings into a medium I'm familiar with in hopes that I can understand what it all means. 

It's going to get heavy, so if you want you can wait until I have something more happy-go-lucky to say. I'd understand. I do hope you stay for the journey. Maybe both of us can learn something...


Humanity is capable of amazing and terrible things, and traveling opens your eyes to the unbiased reality people face in this world. When I first left the comfort of my home country, I couldn't believe how diverse this world was. I mean, you knew about people from other countries. You knew there was more out there. But you really can't know the extent of how different everything is until you step foot into another country. It's overwhelming. I mean, that's why people travel, right? For that feeling of not knowing...and learning about what the world has to offer. It's addicting, like an itch that needs scratching. I stay in one place for too long and cabin fever sets in. 

Lately, though, that need has been much harder to fulfill. The more countries you go to, the more things seem the same. I remember in Cambodia climbing one of the temples and a traveling couple from North America (couldn't pinpoint the accent) was right behind me. I could hear them saying "Honey, this is amazing, isn't it? I can't wait to show our pictures to your parents. They're going to be so jealous This is the trip of a lifetime." All I could think was "Eh, this is cool, but I climbed Mt. Fuji at night and swam with sharks in the reefs in Fiji. I've seen better." I caught myself for a second and thought "Man, that was pretentious of you..."

There was more behind that fleeting thought than I realized. I was traveling for different reasons now, and they ran much deeper than taking pictures and telling stories to friends back home. I wanted to learn more about my place in the world. I wanted to find perspective, and along the way I wanted to touch as many lives as possible for my own personal joy and satisfaction. Humanitarian work is a completely selfish act because feeding and tutoring kids brings me happiness.

There's also a thirst for knowledge that set me apart from the average tourist in Cambodia, and that took me on the path less traveled. Part of that journey took me to the land mine museum outside Siem Reap, where I learned the story of the Khmer Rouge and the man that is Aki Ra.

Before coming to Cambodia, I had heard of the atrocities committed at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. They were the followers of the Communist Party of Kampuchea and ruled the country between 1975 and 1979. Under their rule, the Khmer Rouge believed in a classless society free of capitalism and wanted to revert back to an 'older way of life'. Institutions like money were abolished in favor of reverting to an agriculture society. The 'intellectuals' of the country were murdered, including teachers, bankers, merchants, politicians, foreigners, and anyone that needed 'cleansing'. There are many estimates out there on how many people died during that time, but it was hard to determine simply because access to the country was next to impossible. According to the Yale Cambodian Genocide Project, about 1.7 million people died from execution, disease, and starvation: 22% of the entire population of Cambodia. More estimates pinpoint that figure higher. You can find more information about this online. I was also recommended to read Alive in the Killing Fields by Nawuth Keat, which I'm currently reading now.

At the museum, a US Vietnam Veteran and a volunteer from Denmark talked with me for the better part of 2 hours (the place was empty...most tour busses don't come out there) about the history of Cambodia. I was horrified as much as I was fascinated about how much I didn't know about the subject. You don't really learn about this unless you try to seek information about it, and even then it's hard to get a clear picture of this dark time. I also learned why that is: the United States had a huge part to play in the death of those people.

The United States did 2 things that helped aid the rise of the Khmer Rouge. The first was the firebombing that occurred in Cambodia. During the Vietnam War, the United States dropped about 2.8 million tons of ordnance in Cambodia. If you look at the map, you can see that this was much more than targets that happened to share a border with Vietnam. Part of the reason for the firebombing was to prevent the Vietnamese from using Cambodia to launch attacks from the side and retreat North. Another reason was the leadership of Nixon, who wanted the Air Force to go into Cambodia and 'crack the hell out of' the enemy. Studies in the 1990's revealed that about 10% of these bombings were indiscriminate, meaning that they either had unknown targets or no targets at all.

This forced the Vietnamese Communists to flee farther west into Cambodia and thus giving the Khmer Rouge a Communist influence. This also gave the Khmer Rouge political leverage coming into power by allowing them to blame the deaths from these bombings on the West, generating support and sympathy for the movement.

What's worst of all is that many bombs didn't explode and still reside in the jungle with their detonators intact. These are just as deadly as land mines, as many reside in the rural areas where officials can't defuse them. 

That would be enough to feel guilty for my country's actions, but the icing on the cake was learning that the United States supported the Khmer Rouge on multiple occasions! When the Khmer Rouge was overthrown by the Vietnamese in 1979 (after the war), we help fund their resistance. We would aid guerrilla fighters fleeing into Thailand to help fight the Vietnamese. We allowed the Khmer Rouge to survive well into the 1990's, thus promoting war in the region for the better part of three decades killing who knows how many.

That legacy also lingers with the land mines that plague the country. On the left is a map depicting the number of land mine accidents between 2005 and 2007. The darker the color, the more accidents. It's impossible to know how many mines were placed during the war and the rule of the Khmer Rouge, but present day contamination seems to be concentrated in the western regions of the country. There is an estimated 6 million land mines residing in Cambodia, not including the unexploded ordnance left over from the Vietnam war. Land mines do not expire with time and do not discriminate. They are meant to injure people as much as possible, as an injured man is more detrimental to an army than a dead one.  Land mines are perhaps one of the most inhumane and lethal weapons used by man as they are consistently killing and dismembering innocent people around the world...many of which were used in conflicts dating 50 years or more. 

Those people include children, and while in Cambodia I did see children missing legs and arms from land mine accidents. All I could think was that these kids were the lucky ones...because they survived.

There are people trying to find answers to this problem. A Cambodian man, Aki Ra, leads a group that helps decontaminate rural areas in Cambodia. He started by using pliers and a wrench to pull the pins out of land mines, many of which he buried himself while in the Khmer Rouge. Now they use TNT to blow them up, as many are old and the detonation pins are unstable. His story is remarkable and you can find more on him from this CNN Heroes story.

In 1997, there was also a treaty known as the Ottawa Convention that banned the production, stockpiling,  transfer, and use of anti-personnel mines. As of January 15th of this year, 159 countries have signed the treaty. The full text can be found here. Both South Korea and the United States have refused to sign the treaty. President Clinton set a deadline to sign the treaty by 2006, but President Bush reversed that deadline in 2004 and tried (but failed) to begin production of land mines that expired over time. Efforts to sign over the US-placed mines on the DMZ to South Korea and to stop the production of land mines have been defeated by the Korean government. Both countries have the legal power to produce and use land mines as they see fit. On a personal note, I'm severely disappointed in both countries but continue to have hope that they find a way to sign the Ottawa Convention treaty in the future.

Now what does all of this mean? Well, nothing really. This is just a political issue of a third world nation that happens to involve many other nations of the world. It doesn't mean a thing unless you have an emotional response to it. It's a story on late night CNN that makes you think before you go to bed. You'll wake up the next morning, make yourself a cup of coffee, and go to work like you always do. Nothing will change.

Nothing will change unless you get emotionally attached, and even then it might not be enough. You could donate to an NGO, but find out later that they are corrupt and don't help those who need the aid. Your voice might get drowned out by all the others asking for help. It's the bleeding heart routine, and from a social standpoint it gets old.

For myself, it comes back to that issue of perspective. When I came back to Korea, I felt disconnected from the culture here. The vanity here made my stomach curdle. I don't care how young I look or how young that I am. I don't let that get in the way of me living my life. At times, I wanted to scream at the people trying to peg me into a rung on the social ladder. That hierarchy...it makes me sick. I'm a person, and I know what kind of person I am and who I want to be. I see how beautiful I am, and I will never let you define that for me. Ever. There are issues way more important in this world than looking good in the public's eye and the amount of money I make in a year.

It reminded me of when I came back from Kenya, and how apathetic people were. How apathetic I was to a degree. I couldn't blame Korea, and I can't blame others for not caring about these issues. They didn't see what I saw. I can't bring the cause to them because they didn't experience it. Changing hearts and minds is never easy, mostly because no cause is completely good or completely evil. It'd be selfish of me to demand you to see it my way because I'm not completely right. The only thing I could do was adjust my perspective. I have to count my blessings. I'll take up causes and quietly work at making my world a better place to live. That's all I can do.

When I did that...when I adjusted my perspective...things like having a girl not text you back and the Republican Primaries become petty in comparison. My disconnect with the world instead turned into moral clarity. I know what I stand for, and finding how I fit into society back home becomes the challenge instead. 

And maybe, just maybe, sharing my stories and my perspective with you might get you to question yours. Not to change and agree with me...just to question it. To not be complacent with your morals and values. That's how we're going to change this world for the better.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Cambodia 2012 - Last Day!

Tomorrow I will be flying out to China and heading back home to Korea. It's been a wonderful trip, filled with pretty amazing people and some great pictures, stories, and adventures. The blog will be going dark for a couple of days while I travel and rest.

During that time, I'll be writing a couple more posts on some of the insights and observations I had while being here. I won't lie...some of them aren't pretty. For better or worse, though, they have shaped to a degree the lens through which I see the world and all the amazing and devastating things that humanity is capable of. Even my traditional 'silver-lining' demeanor cannot sugar coat these stories. 

At the same time, as a traveller, you take the good and bad lessons you learn and try to become a better human being because of it. You learn. That's why you take a step out your door in the first place. You should have that incurable hunger to learn. To explore. To discover. That way, when you get back to the drudge of every day life, you can keep a sense of perspective. It's a bond that all travelers share.

For now, Happy Lunar New Year! And I'll see you all back in South Korea!

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Cambodia 2012 - Bokator


As with most vacations, once the end is in sight you have a slight panic attack. A lot of things go through your mind, but the one question that seems to consistently pop up is "Do I have enough time to do everything I want to do?". Some places you may never return to again, and it's all too important to leave feeling fulfilled. 

For myself, I move fast. Very fast. So, I assume, that at the end of my vacation I may never return to this place again. Finding that fulfillment is my mission, and often the last couple days are such a whirlwind of events that I board that plane ride home exhausted.

This trip, however, showed me the importance of taking things slow. 8 days in Siem Reap is way more than I needed, and it allowed me to take my time and do things I wouldn't normally do on vacation. I read books. I took naps. I talked with strangers. I got lost whenever I could. It allowed me to see Cambodia more intimately.

It also allowed me to do some really stupid things like train in the middle of a village in the Cambodian martial art of Bokator.

This story started about 2 days ago, when I was sitting in the lobby of my guesthouse chomping my way through the second book of "The Hunger Games". One of the guys that works here was standing behind the desk, and I noticed how thin yet how strong he looked. It's a much different build than most Cambodians, who are more interested in getting a decent meal than working out. 

I asked him what kind of sports he liked to play. I have this obsession with playing soccer in 3rd world countries and, although I've kicked the ball around at the local schoolyard already and satisfied my 'mission', I was always looking for another game. Turns out…he trains in Bokator as a fighter.

Coming off the heels of my trip to Thailand and having a small infatuation with Mixed Martial Arts in Southeast Asia, I started asking him questions. Is it like Muay Thai? Where do you train? Who do you fight? How long have you been training? Rather than answer my questions…he invites me to train with him. As an adventurer, I say 'yes' without a second thought. 

Flash forward to today (Saturday). Although I have plans to visit another village and help with the soup kitchen for the 3rd time, I delay my start time for 2 hours so I can train in the morning. 7am comes around and, after a quick breakfast, we both grab a bicycle and head out.

Our bicycle ride takes us through the part of Cambodia that tourists rarely see. There is trash everywhere on the streets. Naked children play in the sewage-infested waters that straddle the highway. Bicycles are everywhere and Tuk-Tuks are non-existent in this part of the country. Everything smells funny…

I started to notice, after half an hour of riding, that everyone is staring at me. At first, I'm glad that I left my camera at home. If I was going to get mugged, they would get $15US and an unmarked room key. Then I started to see those smiles. The Cambodian smile. They were happy to see me! I don't know why…I wasn't going to talk to them. I was just going through to the gym. Maybe it's just the way they greet visitors. All I know is I felt much safer here than in the tourist-infested streets of Siem Reap.

We turned off the highway on a back-alley that cuts through another trash-filled street. Crap is everywhere…literally crap. Dog crap. Human crap. It smells, and I'm glad I have my scarf to mute it all. Fortunately, we go right through and arrive at the gym.

The 'gym' that these guys work out at is what we call in the Western world an oil change shop. Literally….they took a place where they change oil, took out the machines, laid some matts down, and started working out there. It was dirty. The 'locker' room was infested with God-knows what. I opted on changing outside. I don't mind being naked for a moment...

That's when I notice how the 'gym' is very clean and well kept…well, for the equipment that they do have. They have a Buddhist shrine for their former teachers. On the wall is an assortment of awards and dated pictures. There's a certificate or two, all written in native Khmer. On the pad shelf are about 5 pairs of different pads, all worn and torn to the point where many are wrapped in duct tape. It's clear that they have seen better days, but that the pride in their gym hasn't wavered.

For the class today, it was myself, the friend from the guesthouse, and the teacher. Small class, right? We start with some stretches that really tested my fitness. They were weird, nothing I've done before. One was some kind of Matrix-like dodge move that would crack my back on every rotation. I was definitely out of my element. From here, we learn about throat jabs.

Bokator is a kind of fighting style that is based around hand-to-hand combat in the battlefield. These moves are meant to neutralize an opponent as quickly as possible or, in some cases, kill. It uses much of the same techniques as Muay Thai and, if you ask any Khemer, they'll tell you that Bokator came first.

Training was intense. My first day and I was learning leg sweeps and elbow counters. My teacher showed no mercy. He's about a foot smaller than me, but I could see it in his moves that he could kill me in 3 moves if he wanted to. Much like the fighters in Thailand, however, these people are kind. Very kind. They don't abuse that power, and in fact try to empower others to help in self defense.

2 hours later and I'm about to pass out in a pile of my own sweat. After 50 sit-ups using old tires to hold down my feet, we are finished. For the 2 hour training session, I pay the guy $5. I'm immediately greeted with that Cambodian smile and we head back to the guesthouse. 

At this point I'm exhausted and sweaty, and by the time I get back to the guesthouse I notice that I have missed the caravan to the village to help with the soup kitchen. Fortunately, I know that they have more than enough help today, and that yesterday I already bought the kilos of rice and sugar for the older Khmer lady, so I don't feel as bad. The rest of the day I take the bike out and ride around Angkor Wat.

The bikes here are solid metal, have one speed, and are sturdy as a rock. They cost about $30, and are indispensable in terms of getting people around Cambodia. Many kids have them to get to school, which could be 10km away. At first, I felt bad because it was so hot and I would ride around in a Tuk Tuk. After riding my bike all day to the point where I can't move my legs, I realized how meditative and therapeutic bike riding through the jungle is. It doesn't take long to get to places, and you can appreciate nature and everything around you with a sense of immediacy. You're outside, in the open, cool wind through your hair. You feel alive.

I got home around 3, when the sun was strongest and the heat was unbearable. I had my long sleeves out and my scarf protecting me from the sun, but that was just enough. After a shower, I hit my bed and slept till 7. Best nap ever.

Today I found that fulfillment. I've officially done everything I wanted to do here, and more! I have the pictures to prove it (which I will post when I'm back in Korea. Internet is still fussy…), and have met many friends. I still have 1 more day, which will probably be spent on the porch of Bloom Guesthouse reading the final chapters of "Catching Fire" and packing my stuff to go home. It's been a wonderful ride, and I feel tired yet satisfied.

Stay tuned though, as I have a couple more stories I've been saving for you. It's airport writing, however. I'd rather reflect on them for a bit.

Friday, January 20, 2012

It's funny...nature and technology just don't seem to get along. Ever.

In Cambodia, the first issue is moisture. It's everywhere. Even dry season is humid and hot. One of the big issues, especially with camera gear, is moisture inside the lens. Currently, all my gear is sitting on my bed with the AC on trying to dry out a bit. I haven't had too many problems this trip, as most of the days have been quite dry. But for precision instruments like cameras, you don't want to take any chances.

The second issue, which is something that perplexes me, is the ants. Now my mother might say otherwise, but since living in Korea I've learned to be a much cleaner guy. This goes double for my computer and my gear. I rely on it too much to be dirty and disgusting.

In the past couple days, these little red ants have been exploring the inner depths of my Macbook Pro. I know they're in there because, every once in a while, one would pop out of my space bar to see what all the commotion was about. It's weird...but frankly, as long as they bugger off in the next day or two, no harm no foul. I don't mind a few hitchhikers.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Cambodia 2012 - Maybe I Was Born to Work with Children After All...

One of the things we take for granted in the industrialized world is the abundance of food. Whenever we see fit, we can go to the grocery store or McDonald's and grab a bite to eat. If we are short on money, there are so many programs that help feed the hungry. We have food stamps. Homeless shelters. Soup kitchens. For the most part, we don't have to worry about being hungry.

That's why, when I volunteered at a local soup kitchen yesterday, I couldn't help but feel overwhelmed by how selfish and ungrateful I've been for all my life. We always say "just be grateful you have food on the table", but I don't think you can truly learn what that is until you see someone who eats only 4 times a week.

The kitchen I worked at was run by a guy named Gasol. Great guy. He's a 30 year old Cambodian who is working to open up his own restaurant, and 4 times a week he cooks lunch for the locals in town. Today, it was only myself, him, his mother, and another US lady, and we were feeding about 75 people. 

It's a remarkably simple process. They grab as many vegetables and eggs as they can get and cook a vegetarian soup, stir fry, and egg omelet for as many people come. There are no strings attached to come and eat here. If you are hungry, you can grab a meal.

Prep time took the majority of the morning, which mostly consisted of me getting scolded by Gasol's mom because I was cutting the pineapple too thick. We would cook on these propane cooking stoves that were clearly donated from abroad. Our cutlery was an assortment of mismatched knives, and we had some industrial-grade pots to cook the soup and stir fry in. Everything here was a product of aid from the Western world, all coming together to empower a local Cambodian to make a difference in his community.

Even still, I couldn't applaud charities for what they were doing. We spent a great deal of the morning talking about NGO's and the local humanitarian groups and the sheer mess they are creating in Cambodia. Many of the orphanages are exploiting their children for money. Aid is getting thrown at so many different things. Approximately 50% of the Cambodian budget is allotted for foreign aid.

What is happening is the Cambodians are learning to rely on the West to support them, all the while these foreign NGO's are profiting from the donations that you make through the television or wherever you donate. Basically, it's a business. A business meant on using money laced with good intentions for personal profit and gain. 

It's a game we had to deal with in Africa. In fact, the whole purpose of "Roots of Happiness" was to change that way of thinking. You can't blindly throw money at issues. You have to do something on your own. You also need to know where it's going and fully trust the organization that your money is going to. Better yet, go volunteer and see what they do! Make sure it's something you believe in.

This soup kitchen was one of those organizations that I believed in. They never asked me for money, just my time. And I reaped the rewards when the children would come up and, in their severely broken English, thank me as they stuffed their bellies with the one good meal they would have for the next 2 days. For ethical reasons, I decided to not take any pictures. This was for my own personal joy and happiness, and seeing those kids happy solidified in my heart why I love what I do.

After lunch, I sat with two young girls and helped them with their English homework. They must have been 8 or 9, very young and tiny. They would leave school to eat here because they didn't eat well. Their 1 uniform, which was what they wore all the time, was brown and dirty with days of soot. They each had one pen and one mechanical pencil, which was used over and over again with care and precision. 

They were dirty, but when they smiled I could tell that they weren't broken. They still had hope. I could tell just by the way they studied with me. They tried so hard, and when they would pronounce a word correctly and I would congratulate them, you could see their eyes light up and see that fire burning in their heart. I know they have such a hard road ahead of them, but I hope and pray for the best. I know that studying with them was better than any gift I could possibly give them. Even as I write this, I am tearing up a little. People spend a lifetime looking for that kind of beauty and joy, and I've been fortunate to be working with them for years now.

I'm going to volunteer again on Saturday, when we go to one of the outlying villages to bring the food to those who can't walk into town. Gasol told me of an older lady who can't buy food because she can't carry it, and many of the villagers don't have the money to help her. A bag of rice costs about $20, so I'm going to buy her some rice, sugar, flour, and maybe some cutlery. Apparently she's an amazing cook and can bake cookies. I might have her teach me some things ;)

Tonight I do ask you that, when you're having dinner, you please be thankful for everything that you do have. Don't just say it in your mind…feel it in your heart. You are lucky and blessed, and that spans whatever religion or belief you might have. Not everyone has the opportunity to see what I've seen, and my words can't do these moments justice. But I have to try. It's my job as a storyteller and adventurer.

Cambodia 2012 - Oh no! Not the Internet!

Hey guys! So, as I am in a 3rd world country right now, internet is a precious commodity that seems to go out when you need it the most. My guesthouse at the moment is in blackout, and so I had to scurry to town to do some work and check some emails. I'm documenting all my adventures through pictures, vid blogs, and written entries...but may not be able to post them on a regular, daily basis this week. I'll stagger them throughout the week as best I can, and you'll have plenty of content next week as well when I return to Korea.

To satisfy your travel hunger, or if you're just really a big fan of mine, you can check out some new pictures that I posted in my photography portfolio! Either click on the link found on top of this webpage or, if you're super lazy, you can just click here. Till next time...adventure is out there!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Cambodia 2012 - Temple Hopping and Freedom Fighters


When I think of jungle temples in Cambodia, I immediately think of Indiana Jones. I think of him running through moss covered hallways with intricate carvings everywhere, blow darts, boulders, and snakes. I have an image in my head of what a 'temple' looks like because of those movies and the awesome ride at Disneyland.

As it turns out, Spielberg and the Disney Imagineers were pretty spot on in recreating forgotten temples…minus the booby traps and Nazis chasing you down.

Today was day 1 of my temple hopping in Cambodia, and I left my entire schedule up to my awesome Tuk Tuk driver Rona. Whenever you go traveling, one of the first things you should do is befriend the locals. They will show you places that the tourists don't know about and, in general, take care of you. It's their country, and most of the time they want to share it with you. Break away from the tour groups and really get to know the country you're visiting (I'm talking to you, Koreans!).

My day actually started with breakfast on the terrace of the guesthouse. I got a late start today because, as I was eating, I was chatting with an Australian professor who was getting ready to start her day too. We chatted about NGO's, charitable organizations, and social change. You know…the average person's dinner talk. Eventually, we got to the part where she wanted to give me some advice. It seems like a normal trend when I travel: I look 18, so everyone wants to give me some life advice, as if I can't figure it out on my own. 

This time around, she gave me some advice that really stuck with me. The simple version of our hour long discussion: do what you love, and everything will fall into place.

The longer version went like this: 'kids' my age are focused on money and security. That's what they want, and who can blame them? But we act as if we're the only group facing this kind of economic crisis, when it's happened time and time again throughout history and each generation found a way to make it work. We are no different, and should stop pretending that we are. We should also find something we believe in and act on it, no matter what. That will see us through and bring us the most happiness. Money doesn't matter nearly as much as we think it does…

But anyways, that was a tangent. I know. It was a remarkable way to start my day though, and a kind reminder that maybe…I am doing things right.

Rona and I jetted off to the temples around 9am this morning, and our first stop was a distant one literally in the middle of nowhere. It was about an hour's drive through the Angkor Wat Archeological  Park, and so I had plenty of time to equip my 7D and my telephoto lens to a tripod mounted in the Tuk Tuk to do some 'on the road shots'.

Buying tickets for Angkor Wat is simple. You can buy a one day pass for $20 or a three-day pass to be used within a week for $40. After today, you honestly don't need more than 3 days, but you should definitely spend more than one. It's huge.

On the way to the distant temple were scattered Cambodian villages occupying the one poorly-paved road in the region. This was the country side…and about as 3rd-World as you could get. That means seeing people living in hammocks between trees, kids playing around butt naked, the perpetual smell of fire, and the perpetual sense that the place was contaminated with every known deadly disease that we hear about on CNN. 

But, as I've been learning in my travels, the 3rd-World isn't nearly as scary as you think. These people are really some of the kindest people you'll ever meet. They've seen literally decades of war, and want nothing but happiness in their lives. They live simple, and often are just trying to survive. That forces you to have perspective on the things that are truly important, and really makes the worries we have in the Western world seem petty in comparison. Life truly is simple.

They also need a lot of help, and that's when I started seeing signs of 'sponsors' that helped build the native Cambodians homes. They were cookie-cutter houses, but they were nice and very efficient. It was an incredibly refreshing sight for me, but I couldn't help but wonder if the people on the signs even came here in the first place to help out, or if they're just a name from a far away land with the big checkbook.

After an hour of driving, we arrived at the first temple. It was a much smaller one than Angkor and its siblings, but it was still very impressive. Most of the temples here follow a similar style. You have an outer wall shaped as a perfect square. Many have moats on the outside. You walk through the main gate and enter the grounds, where a central walkway leads you the main temple. Two ponds sit on the sides of the walkway. The main temple is usually decorated with very detailed carvings of the story of the Gods. Some are awesome, like how all the gods teams up to beat the crap out of Shiva because she was being a jerk, and employed a thousand demigods and all the animals of the air and sea to engage in a tug of war with all of Shiva's demon friends. Some are just very straight-forward: here's whoever this temple is dedicated to. Here's what they look like. Add random Buddhas. Rinse and repeat.

The majority of the temples are made of sandstone, and so over time they begin to change colors and erode in very unique ways. Some temples were red and brown, while others were a dark black with greens and yellows. Many of the temples had trees growing on top of them or, literally, right through them. What made the construction of the many temples in the Angkor Wat region is that they were brought here from quarries literally 50km away. These temples aren't carve into the mountains: they're literally sitting in the middle of plains of flat jungles. And they're huge: they dwarf the countless palm trees scattered around.

For a photographer, the temples were both impossible to shoot and a cornucopia of eye candy just waiting to be devoured. The light in Cambodia, being near the equator, is harsh. Very harsh. So, between the morning and late afternoon it is almost impossible to get a proper exposure on the often white sandstone buildings. Many of these temples are massive in size and hidden in jungles, so getting a wide shot of each complex is nearly impossible. There was often so much to shoot that I didn't know where to start. The moats alone were 300 yards wide and a mile long. You can't properly capture that on camera sometimes…the huge scale of the place you're visiting.

At the same time, the lighting when you got to the temples with trees covering them or intricate tunnels and rooms was so dynamic and diverse that I would literally giggle in delight when I was taking those pictures. Traveling by myself also allowed me to take as much time as I wanted, and I truly got some amazing pictures. That's a good thing, because the detail of some of these places is out of control. Once I have stable internet, I'll be posting them. Also, you can thank the Chinese, Indians, and Koreans for that one. They helped restore the majority of the temples here in the Angkor Wat region.

One of the hectic problems I had was the slew of tourists when you got to some of the major temples like Angkor or the Capital City. Many were European, Chinese, or Korean. I have problems with tourists, and you can check out my feelings on a earlier post from Thailand. The big problems with the tourists here were how they dressed, how they acted, and those DSLR's that hung around their necks. 

Many of the tourists dressed much like they would at home, and that's a big problem when you're in one of the poorest countries in the world. I was taught to dress conservative, not in my bright Euro-colors or my high-heels, Snooki sunglasses, and booty shorts. Not only does it show that you have money, but it is extremely disrespectful and unclassy. You're in a temple: a  place of worship for many people. Treat it with respect.

A lot of the tourists would also litter and berate the children and natives trying to sell them stuff. I know, it gets overwhelming when people are trying to sell you postcards at every stop. But this is how they make their money, and they're just trying to make a quick buck. You can just as easy smile and say "No thank you" and they'll move on. Or, like me, you could buy a $1 Cambodian hacky-sak and play with the children and Tuk-Tuk drivers (seriously, that was one of my most tender moments in my travels, and one that I'm not soon to forget). Treat them like people, not like your servants.

I do like the DSLR revolution. Putting the tools in the hands of the people have given us some pretty creative and exciting photos and videos. At the same time, EVERY person thinks they are a professional once that device is hanging around your neck. You should get practice with it, and the only way is to use it in the field. But don't be trying to compare your equipment with mine or giving me weird looks when I use mine different or go for a shot that isn't the 'essential' shots. And also don't snicker because I have two with different focal lengths hanging from my neck. They are tools. Cameras are tools, and only as good as the operator using them. Learn and come up with your own techniques and workflow before you go judging mine. And please take an ethics course…taking pictures of kids begging and starving is not cool.

I do rant on tourists a lot, so I should say that today was truly an amazing day. We ended it on a mountaintop temple overlooking the entire province just as the sun was setting. While people were taking pictures of the sunset, I was taking some amazing pictures of Angkor Wat. Up here, you could truly appreciate how huge this place is. 

My last moment of the day was when I got back to the Tuk Tuk, where Rona was chatting with the other drivers. They were all hanging out in his Tuk Tuk when I arrive, and they all where clearing out so we could get on our way. One of the drivers pointed to Rona and said "he's a good man". I responded "Yea, he's pretty awesome. He's been talking care of me." The driver responded "That's because he's a freedom fighter for Cambodia."

I asked if this is true, and Rona just nodded as we sped away. I couldn't believe it. Rona was awesome already, and always had a smile on his face. He told me about his wife, and how she's 3 months pregnant and how he hopes for a boy, but would be ok with a girl. He's so eager to show me his country, and now I know why: he fought for it during the Khmer Rouge. That makes him a hero in my book, and, although I won't bring up the subject again with him, will always look up to him for what he's done. 

I'll talk more about the modern history of Cambodia in a later post, as I did spend nearly 2 hours talking with an American Vietnam Veteran who was working at the Landmine Museum. That story is eye-opening, heart-wrenching, hopeful, and concerning…and merits a good read once I finish it.

What a day…Day 2 is over, and I still have the better part of week to explore. From here it actually slows down a bit, as I get to do some more interesting things in town and spend more time getting to know the area. Today was more a whirlwind tour, and I had the Tuk-Tuk hair to prove it (It's when your hair stands straight up cause you've been in a Tuk-Tuk all day). Time to go to bed...

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Cambodia 2012 - Tuk Tuk Rides

Today was more of a "Ryan needs to recover from the flight" day, and so, without an agenda, I hopped in a Tuk Tuk and decided to explore the town of Siem Reap a bit.

My driver today was a guy name Rona. I knew from the moment I met him that I was in safe hands. He greeted me with a smile and a firm handshake, and just like that we were off.

If you've never ridden in a Tuk Tuk before, it's much like riding in a wagon connected to a bicycle. You're out in the open looking around as everyone is staring at you cause you're foreign. It doesn't go too fast, and traffic is always zipping by you...often too close for comfort. After a while, you get use to it and can relax and enjoy the ride. They're an awesome way to get around. You can hire a driver for the day for $5, and, if you're nice, he might act as your translator and tour guide as well.

That's what happened with Rona. He dropped me off in town for an hour or so and, after exploring the town a bit and getting the best $3 Thai massage ever, realized that I need some help getting around here. We met back up around 9am and I told him "take me somewhere interesting." I thought I could get some cool pictures, but what I really was doing was diving head first into Cambodian culture.

Rona took me through the side streets of Siem Reap, away from the hoards of European hipsters and Korean bus tours. He showed me the slew of Children's Hospitals and local shops making silk and silver statuettes. I would often wait a moment before asking if I could take someone's picture, which was often responded to with a giant smile and a silent nod. We would have a conversation, which often started with "Where are you from?" and "You are so young!". Rona would occasionally step in and translate, and we would laugh when the guys cracked a joke. Khmer men are hilarious.

It was a beautiful snapshot of their culture. They are so friendly and outgoing and, after years of war and violence, they are all looking for peace and happiness. They have problems, and they tackle them as best they can. The fundamentals of happiness are all there. I would even say they have it down much better than the Western world does.

Rona then took me to the National Museum, where I had a crash course in the history of the Khmer people. Turns out, Buddhism and Hinduism have been literally colliding throughout their history. Angkor Wat is a Hindu structure that is used by the Buddhists. Buddhist monks walk the streets now and days, and most of the culture is primarily Buddhist now. Their history is fascinating, and they were some of the greatest temple builders in the world. Think Indiana Jones....without the rolling boulders and priests trying to rip your heart out.

We cruised around town some more, just watching the people go by. You would see schoolchildren in uniform riding their bikes home next to a parking lot full of Tuk Tuk drivers try to get foreigners to hire them out. I was delighted to see that a lot of the 'tourists' here don't draw too much attention to themselves, although you occasionally had the teenage clown wearing his skinny jeans and baseball cap. 

Some things weren't nearly as delightful, and I was reminded yet again that this was a very poor country. I saw a child near the children's hospital peeing in the street while his mother held up an IV drip for him. He had no clothes, and looked like he needed an extra couple of pounds. He could have been suffering from some serious disease or it could have been something very treatable like a bad case of dehydration. Either way, he couldn't get into the hospital and so he relied on his mother to help him. I wish there was something I could do, and my heart bled for him, but I had to drive by. I didn't know his situation and wouldn't know where to start to try and help. Part of me wants to come here in the future and volunteer long term. After seeing how happy the people are when they have food on the table, how could you not want to help?

That's another issue I'm going to look at more while I'm here. As for now, I'm back at the guesthouse relaxing and getting ready to head out to Angkor Wat for sunset tonight. Tomorrow will be Day 1 of temple exploring. Now I just need to find myself a fedora...

Cambodia 2012 - Arrival

What a day...oh goodness, what a day. It was one bumpy ride (literally...turbulence for 7 hours), but after everything I finally made it safe and sound to my guesthouse in Cambodia. I feel so tired, but that good kind of tired. That kind of tired that you feel when you know you did a lot for a day.

My day really started when I touched down in Guangzhou, China. The flight from Incheon was a turbulent one the entire way there. Luckily, I spent the night in the airport sauna, which means I spent very little time sleeping and a ton of time in the hot tub. I would do it again...for 30,000won, it was a pretty good deal and insanely convenient. I was relaxed, but tired, so I was effectively knocked out the entire flight.

Upon landing in China, I realized something really spectacular....I was in China! Well, kinda. I usually count a country when I get a stamp in my passport. And, since Chinese Customs literally forces you to exit and re-enter the airport, I got said stamp in my passport. I'll come back, for sure. But as far as I'm concerned, I've stepped foot in China.

Seriously Coke...just pay me already
After getting harassed for the hard drives I was carrying in my bag, I was craving some grub and decided to hit up one of the airport cafes and relax a little before my flight. I sat down near the window and, according to tradition, drank a local Coca Cola.

As I was eating my food, I noticed near the counter I could see the Chinese waitresses giggling and pointing at me. Now, knowing that I would never ever see these people again, I seized the moment when I was paying my check to ask them what was so funny. All 5 of them pointed at me and said "Harry Potter?". Yea...and I thought my dashing good looks were finally going to pay off. I brushed it off with a smile and chatted with them a bit before I went to my gate. Turns out, they were pretty cool, and I made a couple new friends just by smiling. It's that easy.

You can also make new friends by just chatting with someone you think might understand English, and as I was waiting by my gate I started talking to this Canadian guy across the aisle from me. In between talking about Hockey, Tim Tebow, and how much we missed Mexican food, I found out a great deal about his life and what he was doing with it.

He is an English teacher like me, and has been teaching English in Korea for 7 years. That's a long time, but after hearing his reasons behind it I started to actually appreciate what he was doing. He's been around the world countless times, and he calls Korea 'home'. I couldn't help but feel that Korea could be home for me too. It's a wonderful country with amazing people. I feel safe and secure. People are happy, and so am I. It's something rare when you find that in the USA. Also, he was working at a University. He was designing his own curriculum, working 8 months out of the year and traveling for the other 4. It was something I could see myself doing...but more on that later.

The flight into Cambodia was much smoother, and I spent the flight reading the first 6 Chapters of The Hunger Games. Stepping off the plane in Cambodia was very reminiscent of my time in Africa. The runway was dark. We were walking on the tarmac to a little building that was hosting only one other flight. Getting my Visa consisted of me submitting my yearbook picture and paying a man $20, which he put into a suitcase. They spit you out a Visa, and just like that you can enter the country.

In Paul we trust...
I was picked up by my Tuk Tuk driver for the week, Paul. He works with the Bloom Guesthouse, and basically if I need to get anywhere while I'm here, I can just give him a  call. Rides are about $1 around town, and $5 to Angkor Wat. Basically, Paul is my new best friend this week.

He greeted me with a smile that you can only find in Southeast Asia, and 5 minutes later I was on the road speeding through the streets of Siem Reap.

The 20 minute ride to the guesthouse was a stark reminder of where I was. I was in one of the poorest countries in the world, and everywhere you looked you could see the economic inequality. Across the street from these massive hotels would be people living in tiny huts or sleeping in a hammock draped in their grocery store. It's about 80 degrees outside and humid, so many people are just kicking it on the streets.

Come on Coke Sponsorship!!!!
At first glance, this could frighten most people...especially when traveling alone. But those fears went away once you heard that everyone was laughing. People were riding on bikes and joking around. Kids were playing in the streets. I drove by one girl with an Angry Birds T-shirt hitting one of her friends with a soccer ball while her parents were playing volleyball in the dark. Everywhere I looked people were enjoying themselves rather simply....at 9pm at night.

Paul took me down some crazy side road and, eventually, I arrived here at the Bloom Guesthouse. This place is gorgeous! My room is something you'd find at a 5 star hotel, and the reception was awesome. The lady running the place greeted me with a traditional Cambodian scarf and proceeded to sit me down, feed me, and help me plan my Angkor Wat tour and my time working with some of the children in Siem Reap. She felt like a surrogate mother, and after such an exhausting day like this it felt good to come to a place that I could call 'home'.

This week should be pretty exciting. For now, though, I'm going to kickback and enjoy my 2nd Coke of the day. Traditions...you know how it is.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Cambodia 2012 - Leaving Incheon

I've always romanticized airports. I would blame the countless movies that have the guy chasing the girl to the gate to tell her how much he loves her (although you can't do that anymore), but it wasn't until 2008 that I really developed this infatuation with air travel.

Before that, most of my air travel had been domestically in the United States...and for most of us, that's a miserable experience. Security checkpoints, poor service, cranky people, delays and more delays: it all adds up to a horrible experience for many of us. Or, at the very least, it's something of a chore. You're doing it because you have to. You have a destination, and the journey is something in the way.

International air travel is a completely different story. Even though there's an exponential amount of stress that comes with it (Customs, your Passport, currency exchange, communication), there's something inherently exciting when you step into the international terminal with your Passport in hand. You're going somewhere special.

When you step into an international airport, everything feels different. You have duty free stores and the best restaurants and exhibits at your disposal. This is the gateway to a country, and first impressions are very important. The employees are extra friendly, the facilities are clean, and the airport itself is designed to make your trip as comfortable as possible....unless you're in Newark.

Incheon International Airport is no exception. In fact, Incheon is one of the crowning achievements in airport design in the world. That's not overhyping it: the place has won the award for "Best Airport in the World" 6 years running.
The main terminal is one huge atrium, with 5 floors below the main floor that house everything from baggage services and restaurants to an ice rink, a performance stage, and a sauna. I think that, if Tom Hanks got stuck here for a couple months, he really wouldn't mind...

It isn't the airport that makes it so impressive as much as the people in it. Busy airports like Incheon host thousands of people from countries all around the globe on a daily basis. It's a cornucopia of cultures inhabiting one space for a brief moment in time. 24 hours from now, most of us will be going to different corners of the globe. We all have our own personal journeys and adventures, and as I sit here in the main lobby watching the trollies and people make their way to their gates, I feel refreshed and hopeful.

In the mess of all the bad things in this world, it's traveling that reminds me how beautiful humanity is. We are such a diverse and amazing species, and places like Incheon Airport are testaments to what humans are capable of. We are constantly discovering and rediscovering our own answers to life's big questions, and part of that process is traveling. We are born to move. 

My flight leaves tomorrow morning. I'll have a 4 hour layover in China before heading to Siem Reap, Cambodia. Until then, I leave you with some more wisdom from Tom Hanks and "The Terminal":

Ameila: Are you coming or going?
Viktor: I don't know. Both.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

AOTOS Changes!

Hey guys! So my blog has been getting a nice little spike in traffic, and to celebrate I went ahead and "activated" the pages feature in Blogger (cause...you know...I knew about them all along).

If you look at the top, right underneath the title you should notice a handful of links. This will help you navigate all my adventures as things start to get a little more active. 

When I'm out and about, I keep a video blog, which can be found under "Video Blog". 

All the videos that my students in South Korea made can be found under my "Dailymotion" account.

My "Photography" and "Demo Reel" links will guide you to my online photography portfolio and my Demo Reel. Come April, I'll be looking for some film and photography work, so if you like what you see send these links to people that might want to hire me. For realsies....send them to people so I can have a job in the summer. If you do, I'll stop saying 'for realsies'.

I'll link a post or two that I think is particularly well written or relevant to what's happening right now. As of writing this post, there's a link to my thoughts on my last big project, "Roots of Happiness". You'll also see a link to the trailer in that post as well.

Hope you like it, and thanks again for following my adventures. My orange sweater would thank you too, but he's too busy keeping me warm right now.


Sunday, January 8, 2012

Cambodia 2012 - Teaser

As fun and as adventurous as teaching English in Korea is...being figuratively stuck in a day job for 5 months solid makes me a bit ancy. I gotta keep moving, keep seeing new and exciting things. That's just my nature. Korea's dynamic enough, but it's about time to get another stamp in my passport.

My next adventure starts 6 days from now in Siem Reap, Cambodia. I'll be spending 8 days exploring temples, eating local food, volunteering at a local orphanage, and taking as many pictures and video blogs as I can along the way. Expect a flurry of posts during the week of January 16th-24th. Bookmark this page! Or better yet, just bookmark it cause you like reading about my adventures :)

I won't lie to you...this is a very impromptu trip. I booked the flight 2 weeks ago, which is a short time for any trip of this kind. I knew a little bit about Cambodia (mostly from my trip to Thailand in April), but not enough to make it a 'must-go to' destination. But the more and more I read about this country, the more and more I get excited to go. The price was decent: a flight and hotel for $550. More importantly, it seems like a beautiful country full of beautiful people, and I can't wait to experience and document a small snippet of this culture that seems so foreign to me. 
Plus, I checked out the weather. It's 95F there right now, while it's a brisk 15F outside in Korea and 35F in my classroom. I'm dreaming of somewhere much warmer right now...

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

New Year's Resolutions? Aww Man...

As of writing this post, I am 96 hours into 2012 (or 2013, depending on if you jumped on the #skip2012 bandwagon), and I've already broken a handful of my New Year's Resolutions. Thing is, I'm a man, and men do not take the blame for these kind of things. And, as a man, I'm going to pass the blame to the true crime here: the idea of resolutions in the first place.

I am an adventurer at heart. I take the leap and ask questions later (unless I'm talking to a girl), and for the most part that strategy has lead me to some pretty amazing and unpredictable places. It's a good philosophy to live by...just not forever, though. I'll get back to that later.

Adventurers are people who don't make excuses to do something. Often, they just do it. Their motives might differ from person to person. I've done crazy things for the fame and fortune, and I've also done some pretty amazing things in the name of science and discovery. It doesn't matter what it is though, because once that curiosity is placed in the mind of an adventurer, eventually he or she will do something about it.

And that takes me back to the idea of a 'resolution'. Every year people come up with that list of things they are going to do to improve their life. It's a very romantic idea: once that clock strikes midnight, you are somehow absolved of your old not-so-awesome self. You now are the person who goes to the gym 4 times a week, or eats healthy, or donates time to the local animal shelter. 

Thing is, you shouldn't need an excuse to change your life for the better. If you've wanted to do these things before, why didn't you start back in August when you thought about them? Think less, do more. Makes sense, right?

But this isn't a post that is suppose to chastise you on how your resolutions suck. No, this is about me and how I suck. I spent the last 3 paragraphs bashing people who make resolutions, yet I drank the Kool-Aid just as much as everyone else did. I've been doing it for years: on December 31st, I write a list of things I want to accomplish or do in the next year. It's often long and crazy and, like most people, I only get through a handful of them. The rest...well, I fail them miserably. Usually it takes me a year to fail so epically, but 2012 is a special case. 

Here's the short list of 'resolutions' that I've failed to keep in the past 96 hours:
  1. Stop drinking Coke. Yea, right...this was destined to fail. I wrote a love letter on this blog to Coca Cola.
  2. Exercise 4 times a week. Does Skyrim count?
  3. Stop forgetting things at home or at work.
  4. Staying happy all the time.
  5. Cutting back on coffee.
  6. Stop hitting the 'snooze' button.
  7. Stop putting my underwear on backwards. Damn you Hanes! Where's the tag??
And here's the short list of 'resolutions' that I haven't failed yet, but will fail in the near future.
  1. Cutting back on video games. Mass Effect 3? Wii U? I need a higher paying job.
  2. Writing on a bi-weekly basis. I love writing, but sometimes you go through dry spells that produce nothing but lists of resolutions you've failed and rants about crap you carry in your backpack.
  3. Stop cursing. I play too much Mario Kart for that...
  4. Visit Antarctica. Turns out, it's expensive. And cold. I'll get there eventually though, don't you worry.
  5. Get a girl to fall in love with me. It's not that I have a self-confidence issue. It's more like I have a blog dedicated to a ratty old orange sweater, and all the things that it stands for. That screams maturity, doesn't it?
Hey bro...did you hear about my new 401k compensation package? Hold on, I'll explain after I'm done pretending that this Landrover is a chariot.




















Here's the thing though: I've learned, in all of my 23 years of worldly wisdom, that resolutions don't take into account all the crazy things you'll be doing while you're busy living. All the amazing and life-changing events in my life have, for the most part, been unplanned. You don't plan on learning how to appreciate life. It just happens, whether it be in a moment of extreme joy or, in my case, surviving a car accident that I should have died in. You can't plan on seeing elephants in the wild or getting kissed by a random stranger celebrating Songkran. You sure as hell can't plan on meeting the love of your life...jease, have you ever seen Sleepless in Seattle?

So when you're making (or breaking) your resolutions, keep that in mind. Life happens when you're making other plans. That doesn't mean you can't prepare to receive all the gifts and experiences life has to offer you. Work on making you the best 'you' that you can be. For me, that comes with traveling. Right now, I have places to see and things to do. Cambodia in 11 days, Europe in the summer, and beyond...I have a lot on my plate. I'm getting them in while I'm young so that, when it does come time for me to settle down, I'll welcome it with open arms. I'll probably stumble out of pure exhaustion, but it'll be so worth it.

Plus, after all is said and done, I'll have a beaten up orange sweater to show for it. That's way better than any resolution I could ever make.