To see monks in their saffron robes in the street is common in Laos and Cambodia. We saw them occasionally in Vietnam and not at all in China. At the beginning of the trip Kasenya would startle and gasp at the sight of the orange robes, but by the end of the trip she didn’t even flinch.
Before traveling to SE Asia, everything that I knew about Buddhism had come from the writings of iconic Buddhists like the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh. This is like learning about Catholicism by reading papal decrees or from scholars. It doesn’t describe the every day lives of Buddhists.
It was extremely interesting and educational for us to spend time teaching at a Buddhist monastery in Cambodia. We shattered some of our own stereotypes of Buddhist monks while we were there. It is very common, almost required, for young Buddhist men to spend some time in a monastery which one assumes they pursue for spiritual reasons. After seeing some of the novices out behind the monastery having a cigarette, calling to us from the upper balcony of their residence or lathering their young bodies shamelessly in the outdoor bathing area, we quickly realized that some of these naughty young men were sent there by their mothers.
In fact, some guidebooks warn western women about being lured to isolated areas of the monasteries. There have been reported cases of monks attempting to sexually assault western women. All monks are prohibited from touching a woman. If a monk attempts to touch a woman, you should be wary of them.
As a woman, I had to be mindful of my inclination to shake hands or hug the monks that we got to know. Although they were surprised by it, the nuns at the Orphanage in Vietnam were open to my hugs.
There are also scams that are perpetrated by men dressing as monks. Traditionally monks have fed themselves by collecting alms in the early morning. They still go around to businesses or homes to collect rice or money. People give alms to monks because the monks are deemed to be more virtuous therefore giving alms is believed to bring good karma. At one hotel in Cambodia we could see this ritual being carried out every morning. But sometimes the monks are impostors. You can only be certain that they are genuine, if you know them personally.
In Siem Reap, Cambodia we encountered monks who were trying to sell good luck tokens in the tourist area of town. We asked about this and found out that these are definitely impostors as real monks don’t try to sell you things. This creates an unfortunate mistrust by foreigners since real monks and nuns are becoming catalysts of change and strong proponents of education within their own societies.
We were very fortunate to have met several Buddhist monks and nuns in our travels. We had a special opportunity to talk to Somnieng, the monk who heads the Life and Hope Association; the organization where we taught English in Siem Reap, Cambodia. It was particularly memorable because in occurred in the back of a pick up truck driving down dusty Cambodian back roads while going to visit an orphanage and a school. (Somnieng was careful not to touch or let his clothing touch Kasenya and I). Somnieng’s efforts and the work of other monks to educate and benefit the people of Cambodia is truly inspirational.
It was after dark and I was walking down a street in Hue Vietnam when my attention was captured by a narrow alley off to my right. It was pitch black except for the soft glow radiating here and there from windows in the buildings that lined the alley. The pavement glistened from the rain that had fallen earlier and all was eerily still and quiet except for the barking of a dog in the distance. As I turned into the alley to take a picture a chill ran down my spine. I was suddenly aware that I was a lone woman, walking in an isolated area of a foreign city after dark. Yet I was not afraid.
In fact I felt very comfortable, but I was puzzled because I realized that I would have been stiff with fear under the same circumstances in Calgary. In SE Asia our family had become accustomed to being out after dark. Even in these exotic locations we were still in the Northern Hemisphere and it was fall so the days were short. We often walked home from supper in the dark.
We chose accommodations that were centrally located so that we could walk everywhere. If we were staying for more than an overnight, walking gave us a really good sense of the place. After a couple of days we knew where all the restaurants were, where the taxis congregated and we began to know where some people lived. We didn’t have the artificial security of a vehicle, so we were forced to get comfortable with being in the streets after dark if we didn’t want to stay in our hotel room all evening. Besides lots of cool stuff like night markets happen, you guessed it, at night.
It wasn’t until the evening in Hue that I realized how afraid we are of the dark. We illuminate everything and spray enormous amounts of light pollution into the sky. South East Asian governments don’t waste resources on things such as superfluous lighting. In some cities such as Luang Prabang, Loas only the two main streets have street lights, but night time is when the city comes to life.
In the late afternoon, vendors start setting up their stalls for the night market. First come the awnings to protect everything from the rain if it happens. Huge sheets of plastic are laid on the ground under the awnings with blankets, textiles and various crafts placed on top. Stalls are lit with single light bulbs hanging from extension cords. We bought a duvet cover in the night market. After looking at many we decided on one that was a beautiful burgundy colour with white flowers - until we got it back to our hotel and realized the flowers were florescent green!
The food vendors were clustered in a narrow street off of the main night market. Tables and chairs would appear in the late afternoon. Huge portable charcoal or wood barbeques would be lit and the amazing smells waft down the main street.
Cart vendors would also find a spot. Often they would be operating on battery power, with one small bulb casting a dim circle of light around them. In many cities these carts would be operated by women who would be out all evening on their own selling a small selection of food items to people on their way home. Some of the most amazing fruit milkshakes came from these street vendors, as well as deep fried bananas and other local delicacies.
People are simply accustomed to less light in other parts of the world. Homes as well as streets are dimly lit. Windows and doors are often left open until everyone goes to sleep, so when we walked in the street at night we could see into people’s homes and their lives. Sometimes the television would be the only source of illumination. The family would be clustered on mats on the living room floor, which also often doubled as a bedroom.
In Truc’s village, the main highway through town had only a few street lights. The pathways leading off the main highway to the houses were not lit at all. When we were summoned to the police station on our first evening in the village, we walked with a flashlight. As it was, the Grandma we were staying with, walking in her bare feet, veered suddenly off the path and ran into a fence. She bounced back toward us and we caught her by the arms before she landed on her backside. On another occasion, Truc’s uncle drove slowly behind us on his motorcycle so that the headlight would illuminate our path.
The night holds unexpected delights as well. Our first night in the village we slept on the second floor balcony under our mosquito nets. It was warm and clear. As we lay on our mats and listened to the crickets, we were treated to the antics of fireflies. We strained our eyes to see them as they flickered in the darkness. They foretold of how amazing our visit to the village would be.
The only real fear we had was dogs, of which there are many in SE Asia. Sometimes when we were walking down a dark and desolate street a dog that had been sleeping beside the street would suddenly bolt up from nowhere. It was more unnerving when several dogs in a pack would approach us at night. One could never be sure of the condition of these dogs and we had rabies vaccine to guard against dog bites as much as any other source.
Overall, the scariest part of the trip was at home, in my bed, before we left. The worries we create in our minds are often much scarier than the actual place we visit.
The money is or was hard for a North American to understand. You have to have the currency of where ever you are going because they don’t take other countries money.
We got our money from the bank machine. Only certain ones would accept our bank card. When they did accept the card, they would give out the currency of the country that we were in. In Cambodia the bank machines only gave out American and we got Real back from change.
The money looks different in every country. I got confused about the money. In China the money was called the yuan and one dollar was about 7 yuan. In Vietnam the money was called dong and one dollar is about 15,000 dong so we felt really rich in Vietnam money. Not so rich in China.
In Cambodia the money was called Real and one dollar is about 4,000 Real. The Real mostly came in bills but there was a couple times when we got them in coins and the Real coins were golden. All the bills were individual colours.
Laos money is basically like the other countries but it is called Kip. The Kip was not as pretty as the Real. One dollar is about 7,000 Kip.
What I am trying to say is that where ever you are in Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and China, you just have to be aware of the money and the exchange.
For us middle aged folks, the name Vietnam conjures up images of the Vietnam war as it has been portrayed in movies and the media. If you ask a Vietnamese citizen about the Vietnam War, they will quickly correct you that it is not the Vietnam War but rather the ‘American War’, after all it was the Vietnamese who won the war.
It has been 33 years since the end of the war, and Vietnam has emerged from it’s war torn tatters to become a thriving nation in south East Asia. But what of the war, with all the horrific destruction, mindless killing and displaced populations? What do the people of Vietnam think and feel about the war and the people that they fought against?
The war has been preserved throughout Vietnam in various ways. In Ho Chi Minh City (know to locals as Saigon) one of the most prevalent tourist attractions is the War Remnants Museum. As a person drives through the country, there are many government erected war memorials and grave yards that extol the sacrifices that were made in winning the war. In Vinh Moc or Cu Chi a person can visit the tunnels that were dug by the North Vietnamese army and Viet Cong to hide themselves from the American forces during the war but what of the damage and material of war?
The old saying “time heals all wounds” can be said of the carnage of war. A tour of the former demilitarized zone between what used to be South and North Vietnam demonstrates this adage. The combat base and airfield at Khe Sanh has become a coffee plantation. The only indication of the airfield and battle that took place here is the small museum with its two old helicopters. Nature is slowly overcoming the insult of the Agent Orange defoliant that was sprayed over large parts of the country and trees are growing back although these toxic chemicals have left a human legacy of horrendous birth defects that will last for decades. The materials of war have disappeared but they still kill and maim those poor unfortunates who happened to pick up live unexploded ordinances in their search for scrap metal. Perhaps the most telling item was walking through the city of Hue, with its floating gardens within the former imperial citadel where a small aluminum boat was pulled up along the side of the street. On close examination it was obvious that this boat was made from the fuselage of some old aircraft: swords to plows.
The war seems to have little effect on the people of Vietnam today, after all over 60 % of the population was born after the war. In conversations with a number of Vietnamese the same general themes were repeated. Yes they were well versed in the history of the ‘American War’, and they laid the blame for the war on the American Government. Yet, there is no outward resentment against the soldiers or country they fought against three decades earlier. Perhaps this is a reflection of the Buddhist origins of Vietnam and the Buddhist philosophy that people should live in the present on not dwell on the past or future. The War is in the past and we all inhabit the present together.
Maintaining access to insulin was a big component of planning our trip to SE Asia. Kasenya requires several insulin injections per day to manage her Type 1 diabetes. Accessing insulin presented a couple of major challenges:
• insulin must be refrigerated until used
• the types of insulin that Kasenya uses are not available in Laos, Cambodia or Vietnam.
After considering our options, We decided to bring a four months supply of insulin with us. Our contingency plan was to fly to Singapore or Hong Kong , if need be, if our insulin was lost or became unusable. In a desperate situation we would have used whatever insulin was available locally, although this could have presented some problems because of different concentrations and questionable quality. Insulin is a vital hormone and a person with diabetes can only manage a day or two without insulin injections before becoming ill.
In order to take insulin with us we would need some method of keeping it cool. We extensively researched portable refrigeration units and discovered a device called a Medi-Fridge which is made to store insulin for travel. The only down-side of the Medi-Fridge it that it does not run on batteries, so access to electricity was important. We had electricity in every place we stayed however in most hotels to you must insert your room key into a slot to turn on the electricity to your room. This is a brilliant way to ensure that guests don’t leave the air-conditioner on because you must remove your key from the slot to lock your room and unlock it late. But it meant that the Medi-Fridge was not running when we were out of the room. The Medi-Fridge will stay cool for a few hours but insulin refrigeration was definitely compromised at times.
We learned from the Diabetes Clinic at the Children’s Hospital in Saigon, that refrigeration is a large challenge for families and suppliers in Vietnam. For us, it was merely an inconvenience. In the end we had no problems.
SE Asia is such a contrast to life in Canada that each day we were presented with something new to marvel at or be surprised with. We experienced a plethora of new things and most were pleasant. But of course, there are things that we miss about home and things that were less than pleasant about SE Asia. Here’s a few:
• the constant honking of horns and maniacal drivers
• lack of cheese and dairy products in general
• a constant barrage of people trying to sell you things
• a constant barrage of smells (many that are not pleasant)
• taxi drivers that try to rip you off
• taking Malarone every day to prevent Malaria
• bargaining for everything (although Dave kind of likes it)
• people who must beg for a living
• garbage in the streets and along the roads (especially in Cambodia)
• sketchy looking dogs
• tourists that dress inappropriately for the local culture (ie wear far too few clothes)
• oh those Asian toilets!
Undoubtedly the most difficult thing about being away was missing the happenings at home!
When you put yourself out there to experience all of the good things travel has to offer, you also put yourself at risk of unfortunate events as well. We have had only minor ailments but no accidents, loss of luggage or had anything stolen to date. However, Christmas 2008 in Cambodia will be memorable for an unfortunate event that we we witnessed.
We ended up spending Christmas eve in Battambang and Christmas Day on the bus to Phnom Penh. We usually try to get the seats at the very front of the bus to minimize motion sickness and because it is easiest to get Kasenya to those seats. We were late booking tickets though and ended up half way to the back of the bus.
It was turning out to be the first bus or train trip in SE Asia, where we had some hope of being on time. About an hour from Phnom Penh, as our bus slowed done through a town, two men on a motorbike came out of a side road on our left at high speed, crossed into the wrong lane and collided with the front of the bus. Neither man was wearing a helmut and only the passenger survived the crash.
The bus driver had seen them coming and the bus was nearly stopped at the time of the accident. None-the-less the sound of the motorbike colliding with the bus was audible and the bottom of the passenger side windshield cracked.
Unfortunately Dave had moved to a seat that had been vacated at the fronf of the bus to take pictures and witnessed the whole event. Being seated in the middle of the bus spared Devin, Kasenya and I from seeing the accident and the aftermath. The bus driver was visibly shaken and a crowd gathered quickly around the front of the bus to see what had happened. It was likely someone from the community that was involved and we could see from the side windows that several people in the crowd were visibly distraught. A Buddhist nun was brought to scene presumably to provide a blessing for the deceased.
It is easy to read too much into the fact that we were on the bus when this happened. Should we have gone home earlier? Should we leave now? Is this a bad omen? In the end it appears to have been an unfortunate coincidence and also a reminder of how fragile and sacred life is. Perhaps in an odd way it was telling us how important seizing the opportunity to make this journey really was.
The last month of our trip will be spent in Cambodia with the final three days in Hong Kong. As we are not returning to Canada until January 12th, we will be spending Christmas in Cambodia. Thank you to Aunt Loretta for asking about our Christmas plans.
We expect our Christmas celebrations to be very low key since Cambodia is 95% Buddhist. There are a few signs of Christmas in some restaurants and stores but those are clearly for the benefit of tourists. It seems that all faiths are accepted and there is no indication that as Christians we should feel at all uncomfortable. On Saturday we were invited to watch a Buddhist religious celebration at the monastery where we are currently teaching English and we felt very welcome and comfortable being there. Our experience in Cambodia has been typical of SE Asia: foreigners are welcome and society is secular.
Buddhism is a very passive and peaceful religion. Some say it is not a religion at all because instead of believing in an external god, Buddhist believe like the Mystics that God and all the answers are inside of us. Buddha was merely a man and is not believed to have had any special powers. Meditation is central to Buddhism. Meditation is merely a method of focussing the mind and although it is a spiritual practice it is not at all in conflict with the practices of other religious faiths. In fact it can be practiced by any one of any faith without accepting the teachings of Buddhism. There is no attempt on the part of Buddhist to convert members of other religions. In fact, the Buddha said that we should explore fully the faiths we were born into before turning to Buddhism.
Back to Christmas, though. We will likely be on the Cambodian coast, teaching English in another small town as volunteers. Although we may enjoy a special dinner on Christmas day it is more likely to be seafood than turkey. We will attend church on Christmas Eve at a Catholic church if there is one. Christmas will not include gifts this year as we have decided to donate our gift allocation to a charity in Vietnam (see Kids Can’t Wait page). Besides we will have been on “holiday” for four months of the current year. The many incredible personal gifts and experiences that we have received in SE Asia have negated any need for physical gifts.
Its seems like the quintessential charitable act - volunteering at an orphanage in a less developed country. Yet, what ever our impact was on the orphanage it pales in comparison to the impact the people at the orphanage have had on us. By allowing us to come to their home for a few days they shared their culture, their food, their lives and their friendship with us. They gave us memories and stories that will last a lifetime.
When we first arrived at the orphanage to volunteer we were greeted by the head nun who speaks no English. We had been to the Pagoda the week before to meet her and see the program they have for special needs children. The head nun was very kind and served us tea. She has been recognized by the Vietnamese government for her work. Since arrangements for our volunteering had been made by a third party, we sat their awkwardly wondering if the message had gotten through that we were there to volunteer or if she thought we were just there for tea.
In a while a younger nun who speaks some English arrived. Although the Pagoda Orphanage does receive tourists it seems that they have not had volunteers before so they were uncertain as to what to do with us. We sat there for quite a while having tea and chatting. At this point our cultural differences became starkly noticeable as I had to suppress my urge to get started, while the nuns were happy to let things unfold as they would.
Some of the children who live at the Orphanage attend public school, so when they arrived back for their 2 hour lunch break we naturally started to play games and chat with them. This gave us a very smooth transition into the daily activities of the Orphanage. Dave, Devin and Kasenya continued while I went to the special needs classroom to see if there was anything I could help with. Meanwhile Lacey made her way to the kitchen to help with lunch.
We had intended to spend more time helping out with the special needs class, but language was a definite barrier to any meaningful participation. The staff at the special needs program are very organized and professional. Since there was little I could do in the classroom I helped feed lunch to one of the children who is unable to feed herself and then I helped the staff do the dishes by hand.
Shortly after this we were called to lunch. We arrived to a fully laid out table set for us in a dining room reserved for guests. It was an absolutely amazing meal consisting of special Hue rice cakes and a variety of other vegetarian dishes. This was real Vietnamese food at its absolute finest. We asked about eating with the children or teachers the following day, but were told that we were honoured guests and so we would be served our meal as honoured guests.
After lunch we found where the dishes were being done and so we helped with them. The 200 children at the orphanage create a lot of dirty dishes and all are done by hand. When dishes were done we were informed that it was nap time. We were shown to a small room with a bed and a couple of couches. The bed was of the Vietnamese style: a wooden sleeping platform covered with a colourful straw mat while the couches were also made of the finest tropical wood without any cushions or upholstery. The orphanage was almost silent as everyone went for nap time - including the nuns and teachers! Later one of the nuns would ask us in disbelief why Canadians don’t have nap time.
Following the obligatory nap we went to the nursery to cuddle babies. While in the nursery an American tour group came in. I was standing beside Kasenya holding a baby and someone asked if she could take a picture. We had been told pictures were permitted. To my surprise the woman started taking pictures of Kasenya!
When we arrived the second morning, we asked the head nun what we could do, feeling that our services had been underutilized the day before. She replied that there is lots of work to be done but nothing suitable for us. We let her know that even though we are from abroad, we eat and go to the bathroom like everyone one else at the orphanage so we should work like everyone else at the orphanage. She agreed to let Devin and Dave clean several of the classrooms. All the desks and chairs were also taken to the central courtyard for a thorough scrubbing.
Meanwhile Kasenya and I went back to the nursery to see the babies and helped with all that laundry from the nursery. Having quickly figured out where we could be useful and the flow of things, we followed the same routine as the day before: helping with lunch in the special needs class, having lunch ourselves, helping with dishes and then nap time. Nap was again followed by cuddling babies in the nursery. As much as this might sound like easy work, 10 children are cared for by 3 woman. With next to no toys for the babies, extra hands are always appreciated.
Another tour bus arrived and came to the nursery while we were there. I was holding one baby when one of the young nuns nudged me to indicate that I should stop hogging the babies and pass some around. So I took babies out of their cribs and gave them to the “visitors”.
Since it was apparent that I spoke English, the visitors had a lot of questions for me. They wanted to know about the babies but they also wanted to know about Kasenya and I. They asked where we were from, if Kasenya was my daughter and if she lived at the orphanage. Not quite sure how the logic of that one worked.
The head nun learned quickly, so on the third day of volunteering she met us at the front door and pointed in the direction of the courtyard where there were still desks and chairs to clean. This time all four of cleaned. One of the young nuns came by and seemed concerned that we were making Kasenya help. She was worried that the splashing water would make Kasenya cold even though it was at least 25 degrees outside.
When the children who attend public school came back for lunch, I was asked to do haircuts. I gave three boys haircuts. I think they also wanted me to do some of the girls but I since I have no training I was too slow. Dave, Devin and Kasenya helped with lunchtime in the special needs class which is on the perimeter of the courtyard where we were washing desks and cutting hair.
We had lunch earlier this time and so we ate while prayers were going on in the temple adjacent to our dining area. The sound of chanting and the accompanying gong provided a calm and pleasant accompaniment to lunch.
Lunch was again followed by dishes. But this time there were a lot more dishes because a tour bus had come and lunch was included with their tour. Squatting around the huge aluminum dish basins, the young nuns doing dishes began to ask Devin questions and giggle a lot. Finally one blurted out “you are very handsome”. How often is a 15 year old told he is handsome by a group of Buddhist nuns?
After nap time, Kasenya went to the nursery by herself while Dave, Devin and I finished washing desks and chairs. This time we had lots of help as the teachers and students from the special needs class helped us out. Some of the kids were so enthusiastic about it, they rewashed the chairs we had done that morning. We didn’t bother to stop them.
Even with only a few common words, we quickly formed bonds of friendship with the nuns, teachers and children. The work we did will not change their lives, but perhaps they will be as affected by the experience as we were. Leaving the Pagoda on our third and final day of volunteering was very difficult and Kasenya cried all the way back to the hotel. The image of the all the nuns standing and waving to us as our taxi pulled out of the lane will be forever burned in our memories.
Bissky Dziadyk Family
Travelling the world as a family since 2008.
In September 2008 our family embarked on a four month journey through South East Asia. Traveling with a child who uses a wheelchair presented its challenges, but following the Mekong River through China, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam with a wheelchair was truly an adventure.
When we move beyond our fears and embrace our dreams, the Universe has an odd way of not only supporting us but giving us more opportunities than we ever imagined. Embarking on a journey with an open heart we can not help but be changed forever by the experience. Indeed it would be a waste to return untouched in the spiritual realm.
September: China (Beijing, Xi’an,Kunming, Yuanyang)
October: Northern Vietnam (Hanoi, Halong Bay) and
Laos (Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng, Vientiane)
November: Southern Vietnam (Hue, Ho Chi Minh City, Mekong Delta)
December: Cambodia (Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, Battambang, Kampot and Sihanoukville).