Beauty And Inspiration In Cambodia
I took a bit of a break from blogging as we traveled through Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand again. And now that we're back in Bali, my development education took a lot of my attention and I just didn't find the motivation to write about our experiences. That being said, we've had some awesome experiences! Expect to hear a bit about our time in Cambodia in this post, and I'll be writing one soon about why I believe Bali is the new land of opportunity, if you can stay focused.
No Man's Land.
There's a place, between Vietnam and Cambodia, that's a sort of waiting place for those getting their visas. There's a food court and a small outlet mall type area that's mostly one big liquor store. Now, Trista and I aren't big drinkers. After battling Ulcerative Colitis for so long and having a strong history of alcoholism in my family, I prefer to keep my distance, but that didn't stop us from browsing. Our alcohol budget is the same as our coffee budget, a measly $25/month. So when we saw that golden bottle of Glenmorangie sitting there on the shelf for $25, we had to go for it!
Phnom Penh - A very strange place!
Soon after our bizarre trip to nowhere, we arrived at our hotel in Phnom Penh. With all of the different markets and tourist areas, I'd accidentally picked a place nowhere near any of the things we wanted to see. Luckily, in Phnom Penh, you can use Grab (like Uber) for Tuk-Tuks, as well as cars, and they cost less - way less! The hotel was pretty nice, but the cityscape from the rooftop bar was the definite highlight.
After checking out the sites from our rooftop and settling in a bit, we headed straight for pizza - because 🇺🇸 (yes, I know it's Italian). Upon arrival, we noticed a strange addition on every page of the menu. Apparently, Cambodian law states that Cambodians can use marijuana in their cooking for medicinal purposes and as an overall spice. They've been doing it for a very long time and there's a loophole that even allows restaurants to advertise this on their menu. They sometimes get shut down for overstepping their rights (selling bags or not paying the right people for the privilege to sell said bags? I'm not sure.), but yes, Happy Pizza is legal in Cambodia. Even being from the Northwestern United States, where pot is legal in just about every state but ours (Idaho), it's super weird to see it on a menu.
We spent the next week exploring and working from our hotel room. As usual, we both got sick upon entering a new country, so we took it pretty easy overall. Still, we got to enjoy some of the sights and got used to using USD again. That's right! In Cambodia, ATM's spit out USD and most places consider it their primary currency. It was a little taste of home. I got better a little quicker than Trista, so I met up with a guy from Spokane I'd met through a mutual friend; thanks ZB. He gave me some tips on places to see on our last day in town, so Trista and I went exploring the following afternoon. We saw temples and monuments while walking along the waterfront, finally ending our day at another rooftop bar my new friend had recommended. It did not disappoint.
Siem Reap - A Happy Place For Happy People Who Have Less Than You Do.
After a quick 6 hour bus ride - we ended up in Siem Reap. We were quickly confronted with the reality that we'd unknowingly booked another place with locks on the outside of the doors, but we we'd become more accustomed to SE Asia since Bangkok, so we decided to stay. After all, it was only for 2 days - the perfect amount of time to get some work done while still exploring enough to know what area you want to stay in longer-term. That one's free.
We were just down the street from the coolest co-working space in Cambodia, AngkorHUB, so we spent our first day there. It was ok, but with so many coffee shops and accommodations with workspace, we didn't see the need to return. Trista found a pretty nice place near Pub Street (the tourist center of Siem Reap) for $9/night, which was awesome! It had pretty good internet, tons of workspace, aircon (for a little extra) and an awesome rooftop patio for morning reading and yoga. Not paying for co-working and nearly-halving our accommodation budget meant we had plenty of room for western food and working from cafes. A franchise simply named "Temple" had a coffee shop about a 15 minute walk from home. It was spectacular, so we spent most days there.
Fellow Entrepreneurs In Paradise
When we were in Vietnam, I'd read an article by a guy named Paul Chris Luke. It sounded like he was working on some cool things, so I reached out to see if he wanted to meet up while we were in town and he promptly agreed. The day we both had time to meet, he was throwing a poolside BBQ for some other entrepreneurs at his villa, so Trista and I grabbed our suits and headed there. The drive to it was a cool taste of Cambodian culture. He lived just outside the city, but the commercialized drop-off was so rapid that if you blinked, you'd miss it. From bars and bright lights to farms and children playing on dirt roads in an instant - it was surreal. It was our first real hint that there was a HUGE wealth gap.
When we arrived he gave us a quick tour and introduced us to everyone. He'd recently bought the villa with hopes of turning it in to a sort of silicon valley work/live space for location-independent workers like us. While we were all talking, I learned that this dude had made the Forbes "Top 30 under 30 CTOs" list for some of his previous work and I was sitting across from another guy who'd built much of the Bloomberg Terminal we all know and love. Here, in the middle of nowhere Siem Reap, was a group of people who were actually doing something worthwhile for the people in their community. It was pretty rad. We all sat around talking and eating for a while, then headed to a speakeasy in town - it was a great day; and it definitely ignited a curiosity in both of us to learn more about the lasting impact experienced business people can make in an area like this.
After our night out with Chris and his group, I was inspired to do some research on Cambodia; my findings were heartbreaking. Like the fact that the average wage in Siem Reap is between $60-150/month and most people work 12+hrs/day, all but 1-3 days/month. With that as the average, it doesn't take much to make a meaningful difference. Sambo, for instance, makes way more than the average, and I've never seen a happier or handier worker in my life. Chris even mentioned that when he was sick one time, Sambo watched youtube videos to make him a grilled cheese and tomato soup - and that it was amazing. So, not only can someone living above their means outsource much of their daily tasks to a local (Khmer) here, but that Khmer will go above and beyond their duties because they're truly grateful and happy. In my previous ventures in the U.S., I've always been fortunate to work with people who go above and beyond, but that's far from the norm.
Trista had a mutual friend (Bones) who hooked us up with a tour guide while we were in town. His name was Johm and, after a few emails, we met up at a coffee shop. As any conversation starts out, we all introduced ourselves and said a little bit about what we did. Trista talked a little about bookkeeping and I talked about trading and learning development. Then we heard his story.
Johm was what Khmer's call "parentless". He spent much of his life on the street before meeting an Australian woman who ran a sort of boys home, where she housed and fed some of these parentless khmer boys. She helped them get in to school, meet people who could mentor them, clothed them, fed them, taught them scripture and all-around mothered them. In fact, he said they all called her "Mtea" (Mother). Here was another person, who'd made a huge difference in TONS of peoples lives, simply because she could and was called to.
After living there a while, she passed away and the home went away, but Johm now knew how to survive. He started working in hospitality and doing tours to be able to practice his english; which he spoke beautifully. He said that it was easier this way, because different accents make it easy to pronounce different words while learning, and he had the opportunity to speak to people from different areas of the world every day. If that wasn't enough, this guy finished up his Bachelors in business and learned how to use Wordpress, amongst other things that increased his earnings potential exponentially. We got to talking about tech tools and automation and I sent him a few links to further his education. Last we spoke, he'd taken some serious strides towards a future in development. I can't wait to work with this guy on something.
After meeting Johm, it was like a filter changed on how we saw Siem Reap. We saw Tuk-Tuk drivers begging tourists to hire them for $7/day; had a masseuse thanking us profusely for choosing her, allowing her to come in to the air conditioned room instead of waiting outside for customers in the 100+ degree heat; we even saw 5-7 year old kids walking shoeless with bags of plastic bottles over their shoulders, stopping at every trash can to see if they could make just a little more on recycling. And these sort of things were the rule, not the exception. It was absolutely heartbreaking.
This was the reality of Siem Reap that had been staring us in the face for over a week before we slowed down enough to really notice. Poverty is everywhere in SE Asia, but this was the worst we'd seen. After noticing that this was going on all around us, and around all of the other tourists who were too busy to notice, it really made us take a hard look at the way we spent our time and money. We could have seriously padded our budget in Cambodia, but everything we saved went straight to the people who needed it most. We even stopped going out to nicer meals so we'd be able to do more. Even still, the people we encountered were some of the happiest people we've ever met. Money has nothing to do with it.
Angkor Wat - Where Parasites Are A Good Thing!
Johm introduced us to Phall (pronounced "Paul"), another guy from the home he'd lived in as a boy. Phall was a Tuk-Tuk driver who had a family and knew how to charge a fair wage for an honest day's work. We happily hired him to take us on a tour of 5 temple ruins, including Angkor Wat. If you're ever in the area, we highly recommend you do the same. Here is his facebook page. We started our day at 4:30am, to make sure we arrived ahead of the Chinese tourists. Chinese tourism is very popular in Vietnam and Cambodia (because it's so inexpensive), and typically involves dozens of entire families, on multiple tour busses; it's just best to stay in front of them. As luck would have it, we arrived early and were able to grab a seat on the ledge of an old library to watch the sun rise over Angkor Wat. Soon, however, our desire to stay ahead caused us to make a beeline for the temple and, after a short 15-minute wait, we were the 2nd and 3rd people inside, making for some fantastic photo opportunities.
I could go on posting pictures of temples and my bride all day long, but I'll leave it at these. Angkor Wat was a wonderful way to finish up our time in Cambodia. We learned a lot and grew a ton, both together and as individuals. We met many wonderful people and had tons of fantastic experiences. I have no doubt we'll be back some day, even if only to make some kind of difference.
Till next time,