Living and Giving

36 Hours in Cambodia [Part 2 of 7]

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This is the second of a seven part series entitled 36 Hours in Cambodia. This is an unedited account of a personal journey and will be followed by stories from a few more of my international volunteer trips. Many of the experiences on these trips would become the impetus for founding UniversalGiving™.

June 16, 2002

First Steps in Cambodia: You Can\’t Leave Today


I came outside to the taxi cab stand.  $1 for a motorbike; $5 for a cab.  Wow did I want the motorbike!  It looked so much fun!  But I heard: Don\’t, Honey, and an image of the kindly face of my father.

Dad has never liked motorbikes, motorcycles, motored any-two-wheeled-thing.   I think he saw an accident once but we don\’t really talk about it.  I saw his face, and image, and the kindly, \”Don\’t, Honey.\”  I didn\’t think again.  I took the cab.

Angels are there for my protection, and I do my best to listen to them.

It took me a bit to get adjusted.  In a matter of days I have switched from saying thank you (spellings are pronunciation only) in Thai (kwaph khun kah), Cambodian (oh Kun) and Vietnamese (Cam man); switched currencies; scheduled hotels, plane flights, etc.   And of course, you must be flexible.

Such as when I got on the plane to Angkor Wat.

The tour office had scheduled me to go in and out in one day.  Not possible, airport officials informed me.  I must stay at minimum two days in Cambodia.  Or, I could go to Phnom Penh, which I was scheduled to go to the following day.

It was to Phnom Penh, then.  I have a backpack, my travel book, my passport, and the same clothes for three days.  I smiled.  I have done this before.  I\’ll just explain to the people I am meeting in Phnom Penh that\’s all I have to wear.  You just need to go with it.  Still, it was a bit of a shock.

It took me awhile with the riel (Cambodian currency) as well.  I converted into it although I had heard they would accept American dollars.  I did this out of respect for their currency, tradition, culture, monetary system… the list continues.  They smiled or gently laughed at me.  I actually caused more problems, because they kept asking: \”Ÿou don\’t have dollar?  We will convert amount for you to riel… No have dollar?\”  !!

The instability of the riel had been quite shocking and people have lost incredible amounts due to the frequent swings.  Around 1999 the riel was around 250 per dollar, a very good exchange.  Then it dipped down to 2500 and stabilized for awhile; now it is at 3900 per the dollar.  It\’s very clear they want the dollar.  When I asked them about the value of their culture, their money, their history — and how their money represented the preservation of those things…. they look at me, for a moment, to pause, and then: No, it does not matter.

It does not matter for those who must think today, or perhaps for the month, or two or three, about progressing forward.   And it certainly does not matter for those who can only think about today.  Today for food.  Today for a home.  Today I provide for my family.  And today I am exhausted because I have gone into the forest and cut and hacked at tough bamboo all day today with a scabbard, to ride back with the bamboo on my bicycle, to sell my day\’s work for $3-4 in the market, to go home exhausted and to do it again tomorrow.

To be culturally aware, in some instances, is for the privileged; or, it is for those who understand that rapid financial and economic progress comes with substractions as well.  The person who can straddle and manage the meaning of both has indeed a large amount of emotional intellect and energy.  There is no one to blame, it is only what can be handled in a life full with complicated choices, emotions, desires.  Balancing the need to eat, with cultural preservations, with massacres of your family, with environmental preservation, with I need to eat today, with I have a job today, with I am afraid of my government, I am excited by progress and opening up trade relations with I cannot think about any of these things because the horror of war and its images has stunned me for the rest of my life….

We do all face the balance of these emotions and their decisions, the past and the present and the weight to which we give each.  But this is another discussion….


You can take action.

Give $20 to provide gardening tools to a Cambodian family.

Give $25 to clear landmines.

Give $100 to support economic development in Cambodia.

Volunteer with an arts center in Cambodia.