11 August 2020, Phnom Penh
Our final 12 days in Cambodia…and Southeast Asia for the foreseeable future.
The pics we took during this period belie the frenzied nature of the time ⏤ Selling off everything we’ve accumulated over the past four years in Asia, racing to secure a renter to take over our lease, job hunting, caring for two toddlers, Lori still holding down a full time job remotely up until the final days, and trying to find some sort of closure with personal relationships in Phnom Penh in the time of Covid, all while juggling the logistics of getting back to (and quarantining in) the U.S.
It was a monumental feat unlike anything we’ve encountered in the past.
There were numerous points along the way where things could have completely unraveled, and we came close a few times to that happening.
All we could do was get up each the morning and focus on doing what needed to get done, then move on to the next day and hope for the best, all the while balancing the demands of the boys, Lori’s line managers, our landlord, and family back home who were graciously shifting their lives around to accommodate our extended visit.
By early August, we were making progress on our flights back to the U.S., despite early setbacks.
The original flights we had through Cathay Pacific were canceled indefinitely.
We booked our second tickets through Lori’s employer’s travel agent, which only made things more complicated. Given the choice between EVA and Korean, we chose EVA into Seattle as the layover was eight hours shorter, and the departure and arrival times were in the afternoon (as opposed to around midnight), which makes all the difference when traveling with two little ones.
The only issue was that EVA was running just two flights a week out of Phnom Penh and canceling one of those each week, whichever had the fewest passengers booked.
So, we picked the flight that appeared to have the best chance of not getting canceled and hoped for the best, knowing that, due to our move-out date, we may very well find ourselves in a hotel for four nights if we were rebooked on the next flight.
We chose to fly into Seattle to reduce the number of connections we’d have to make (and thus, our exposure).
The plan then was to rent a minivan and drive down to Southern Oregon where we would be quarantining.
Two days before our departure, we learned that the Oregon governor was mulling over closing the interstate borders. We knew it was a long shot, but nonetheless provided one more factor to stress over.
Our final August in Indochina was defined by heavy rainstorms, intermittent demolition and heavy construction next door, and a constant flurry of activity of masked strangers taking away all our stuff (at this point there was still no community transmission in Cambodia, but Cambodians are pretty cautious and respectful regarding masks and social distancing in general).
By August, we were actually looking forward to quarantine in the U.S. ⏤ peace and quiet in the PacNW summer sunshine in a house with a large yard where we could spread out and decompress from a tremendously hectic and stressful year.
Here’s a look back at our final weeks in Cambodia, capping off ten months living in Phnom Penh, and four years in Indochina.
Giving Tuol Kork One More Try
We moved to Cambodia just four months before the start of the pandemic.
In Belize and Laos, we felt like we had front loaded our travel and adventures. By the time we reached the half way point of our time in both countries, we felt we had seen the majority of what could practically be seen with littles ones and on a budget.
However, it was a very different story in terms of exploring Phnom Penh.
By the time month ten rolled around, it felt like we had sucked the marrow out of this place and were finding ourselves retracing footsteps and repeating adventures multiple times a week.
One place we hadn’t spent much time in was the far-flung Tuol Kork neighborhood. We spent a Saturday morning kicking around the area last year and were underwhelmed. Nine months later, we thought we’d give TK another go.
From Independence Monument to the center of Tuol Kork, it can take anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes on average, depending on traffic. Along the way is a whole lot of construction springing up out of a whole lot of nothing.
Before we moved here, we heard time and again that Tuol Kork is a haven for expat families far from the city center. Yet, after nearly a year living in Phnom Penh, we know no one, personally, that lives there. The vast majority of expat colleagues of Lori’s and the few friends and other connections we have apart from her work live within a mile radius of Independence Monument.
So, who lives in Tuol Kork and why? Well, we know a lot of upper middle class Cambodians do, for one. But there are a lot of expats as well, working for organizations and companies based in and around TK. Families like the area because it offers villas (detached, single-family homes) with spacious yards, frequently with a pool.
Residential areas within a mile radius from where we live simply can’t offer that, unless you’re willing to pay an obscene amount of money for the few stately villas that remain.
Residents of TK also like the area for its leafy and spacious outdoor restaurants and coffee shops, which remind us a lot more of what we became used to in Vientiane.
Even after a nice morning in Tuol Kork, we were more than ready to leave after a few hours of milling about, and happy to be back in central PP.
What Tuol Kork may have in space charm, it sorely lacks in character and vitality.
Heading Deeper Into Rainy Season
August in Laos was always the gloomiest month. Typically on the heels of a tumultuous May and June punctuated by violent thunderstorms, the clouds would park themselves over the city for weeks, dumping steady rain. The cloistering of monks during Buddhist Lent and the exodus of expats from Vientiane for the temperate summer in northern latitudes, gave the city a subdued and eery feel.
Our experience in Phnom Penh was very different. For one, the weather seemed to have a more tropical disposition, with storms coming and going, and the occasional spotting of blue sky in the mornings. Buddhist Lent seemed to have far less of an impact on the city (if any), and those few expats remaining during the pandemic stayed put.
But we had also become accustomed to a relatively subdued city after the foreign tourists were shut out in March and restrictions went into place. The frantic cadence of Phnom Penh in recent months has given way to a low key vibe, irrespective of the weather.
Noe came along with me to ship something for a friend to Siem Reap. In these here parts, that means throwing it in a bag and sending it on a bus for a couple of bucks. With our mission complete, we took a walk around nearby Central Market. It was the first time we had visited the city’s most prominent market in over six months.
Riley, doing what he does best these days. Chowing down.
Out with the old, in with the new. The story of Phnom Penh in the 21st century.
Our home office these days.
The August view out my “office” window.
Noe’s learning to make do with an ever dwindling supply of toys as we quickly sell off everything. For a four-year-old I’ve been really impressed with him. Never a tear shed. “Daddy, where did (insert toy here) go? Oh, we gave it to an amigo? (his catch-all word for kids) Oh, ok, I’ll just play with my blocks.”
The Happy & Sad Story of Odom Park
As it so happens…at the tail end of our time in Phnom Penh, a big, beautiful, leafy park sprang up, a short walk from our house.
You can’t even begin to imagine how big of a deal something like this is until you’ve lived in Phnom Penh with small kids ⏤ a city known for its monumental lack of shaded, kid-friendly green space.
Throw in school closures and self-isolating in a tiny tin box in the tropics for months on end and an outdoor space like this becomes an insanely big deal.
Before Odom Park, there was nothing that came anywhere close to this place. Unsurprisingly, it became crazy popular with young families.
It even had a little bar/coffeeshop (an extension of our beloved Botanico).
It’s an absolutely perfect space in a great area, filling a huge need in the community.
Odom Park is part of the Popup Park movement, which aims to utilize property in transition for the public good. It’s supposed to be a net positive for all parties.
Here in Phnom Penh, however, it just feels cruel and heartbreaking, particularly when looking around at all of these beautiful established trees and think of them being bulldozed to the ground for yet another luxury condo on top of the hundreds under construction around the city.
It’s an exceptionally rare piece of property in the heart of the city. In other capital cities, this place would hold immeasurable value as a public green space.
In Phnom Penh, it’s only worth as much as what some foreign (usually Chinese) investor is willing to pay for it. Seems unthinkable in a predominately Buddhist society, but that’s the reality of modern Cambodia. People and nature take a backseat to cold hard cash.
Just makes leaving PP that much easier, I suppose.
One last visit to Independence Monument.
One final Negroni in Indochina.
On our final date night, we finally visit Sundown Social Club, a favorite haunt of locals in Tuol Tom Poung with an incredible perspective on Russian Market.
A Buddhist Blessing & Cyclo Ride for the Road
With three days left until departure, we decided we better go see a monk about a thing, and top up our karma.
It occurred to us that, with all of the blessings Noe has received over the past four years living in Laos and Cambodia, Riley had never had that experience (though he did receive a blessing from a Hindu priest in Malaysia, but that’s a bit different).
So, today’s mission is to visit Wat Ounalom Monastery, recommended by a Khmer friend for getting the deed done. Afterwards, we’ll hop on a couple of cycle rickshaws (cyclos) and fulfill one of Lori’s longstanding yearnings.
But first, one last Sunday brunch in PP at Backyard Cafe.
Bar none, the heartiest vegetarian avocado toast in town (psst…they’ll slip in some bacon on the down low at their new location in BKK1 if you ask). Backyard’s also got easily the best green smoothies we’ve ever had.
We arrived at the monastery around mid morning and found it mostly deserted, save for a couple of construction workers milling about.
Wat Ounalom is a strange hodgepodge of buildings of various vintages spanning many decades all crammed into a tight area in the heart of Riverside. It’s obvious that at one time, they were geared up to receive foreign visitors, but in the time of Covid, that’s obviously become a low priority.
We were buoyed to see that they are, indeed, COVID prepared with these pretty amazing no-touch sanitizing stations.
We poked around for a bit until we happened upon a young man waiting for something (for what, we don’t know). I can’t say he was helpful, or even friendly, but he did manage to gesture in the general direction of the caretaker, and for that I’ll give him a bit of credit.
We entered the temple hall and walked in the direction of the man’s flailing arm only to find another man sound asleep in a small room.
Hmm… Is this the caretaker? Should we wake him?
After a few minutes of obvious indecision, the waiting man must have grown impatient with the hapless barang family. Taking matters into his own hands, he rose from his waiting chair, entered the hall, marched directly to the sleeping man, barked a handful of words that I can only imagine meant “Hey, Sleeping Beauty! You’ve got customers waiting!” before flipping around and heading straight back to his waiting chair.
The sleeping man bolted upright, smiled, and…left.
The boys were calm and quiet, so we took advantage of this rare opportunity to have a seat in an empty temple hall and soak it up, perhaps for the final time in a while.
How many times have I sat in a Buddhist temple in Southeast Asia over the past decade contemplating the ornate details of the room, the faith that created them, and my place in all of it?
I can’t possibly begin to count the number of visits ⏤ alone, with locals, with visitors from all corners of the globe, with Lori, Noe, and Riley.
But here, this one, is the last. For a while. For a long while. Theoretically, we could find ourselves back here sooner rather than later. But it doesn’t feel that way. More so, it feels like the final pages of a chapter. And I feel strangely at peace with it.
Moments later, a saffron-clad monk entered the hall to tell us he’d be happy to offer us a blessing, but needed to round up the bracelets first. He suggested we tour the temple grounds for 10-15 minutes and return.
A while later, we returned to find the monk seated with a big bag of bracelets on the ready.
Appropriately, Riley was the first to receive his.
Followed by Noe.
Noe’s old hat at this now. Still, I couldn’t help tear up a bit, remembering Noe’s first time receiving a blessing from a Buddhist monk here in Southeast Asia, how much he’s grown in those four years, and all that’s happened in that time.
In Laos, travelers undergo a baci (Buddhist blessing ceremony) before setting off on a significant journey.
The practice doesn’t seem to be as ingrained here in Cambodia, but this final visit to the temple seemed fitting enough before beginning our long journey over the Pacific back to the U.S. in the throws of a crippling pandemic.
With bright red bracelets on wrists, the reality of our departure and impending journey are beginning to really sink in.
Now, time to find a couple of available cyclo drivers (which honestly, isn’t difficult these days).
We make our rounds, touring the major landmarks, before ending up back near home after a packed morning.
Loose Ends & Pack-Out
One final item of business is to take Noe to pick out a Cambodian nylon fishing net backpack at the Smateria shop. We’ve been eying them since our first visit to Cambo in 2012 and wanted to get Noe one to replace his cheap pleather pack that’s never fit quite right.
I took him to the shop and the patient clerk put out all of the models and various colors. Noe was on cloud nine. After careful consideration of each one, he picked out the bright green elephant pack. I nudged him a bit toward the blue one, but in the end wanted it to be his decision. I sent a pic to Lori to get the okay, and moments later left the shop with a very happy boy.
Smateria is an awesome Cambodia-based company that specializes in handmade bags using recycled and repurposed materials, providing a positive work environment and competitive wage for their artisans, all of which is sorely lacking in the Cambodian textile industry.
Our proud, multicultural big-boy, with his Frenchie hat (and tongue), Spanish shirt, Buddhist bracelet, and Khmer backpack.
We’ve been so happy with the environment and perspective we’ve been able to bring Noe up in so far. Lori and I hope that the next chapter will be able to build on that. In the time of covid, however, that’s proving to be a sizable challenge that we’re quickly realizing is mostly out of our hands.
Back to Tokyo Barber to give the boys one final haircut and head massage in Southeast Asia before leaving the relative health and safety of Cambodia for the wild, wild U.S. of A.
One of the backpacker party hubs pre-March, Golden Street continues to sit eerily quiet, watched over by the empty happy balloon Reggae bars above.
Noe’s final moments with his huge beloved Lego Duplo set that we’ve slowly added to over the last three years.
Pre-June (before Lori got the axe) it never occurred to us that we might have to part with these so soon. We figured we’d be here in Cambo for three years, then into our freight they’d go to the next post for Riley.
Due to the terms of Lori’s contract, we’d have to pay the additional baggage fee to get them back to the U.S., then potentially pay again to ship them onto our next home overseas. Plus, it would be yet one more bag or parcel to wrangle on top of all the others (and two toddlers).
Plus, we knew he’d have plenty of toys waiting for him at his grandparents house where we planned to quarantine.
So, we made the gut wrenching decision to sell the set. Noe took it all way too well (evidenced in the pic above), but honestly, mom and dad are still pretty torn up over it.
But, that’s life as a nomadic family.
On the final day before pack out and departure, this is what’s left for the boys to play with.
80% of their stuff has gone on to other families, while the remainder has been Tetrised into our luggage for the long term.
Hard at work getting everything to fit into eight parcels with a max weight of 23kg each.
Two checked bags per passenger is pretty standard on East Asia-based airlines (with the notable exception of AirAsia (cheap turkeys!!!)), but sadly feels like the lap of luxury to us Americans, who for whatever reason seem okay with trading our dignity for a slightly lower ticket fare.
An interesting side note on our beloved Sterilite footlockers that we’ve been hauling around our stuff in since our first move out to Laos shortly after Noe was born⏤
I always liked the idea of freighting stuff in something solid and durable rather than a suitcase or cardboard box. Other NGO workers swore by these things and we thought we’d give them a shot.
We’ve been really happy with them, particularly given that they stack, have handles and wheels, and can easily be locked for storage.
However, up until today, I had no clue had the volume and weight compared to the large suitcases we also use.
I always assumed that there had to be some trade-off using these, given that they were durable, convenient, and cheaper than a decent suitcase.
I measured the volume and weight and compared them to all four of our large suitcases of various brands. And what did I find? That the Sterilite footlockers were the most efficient parcel by a significant margin. All four of the suitcases were either heavier or smaller in volume (or both) than the footlockers.
The best part, is that the footlockers are designed to meet most major airlines’ baggage standards, and the dimensions are exactly the max, meaning these are likely the most efficient container you are likely to find for checked-in baggage.
To avoid having our footlockers end up in Laos instead of the U.S., I finally peeled off the original freight labels I applied way back in the Obama era.
Just one of countless poignant little moments as we close out our lives here, and yet another reminder of very different times and circumstances not so long ago.
Last Indochina sunset from our Khmer shophouse in Tonle Bassac.
There’s not much more to say beyond that.
I thought for a good long while about how to cap off four years living and raising little ones in Southeast Asia. I felt like I should have some profound reflections. After all, so much has happened. We had so many memorable adventures. We’ve learned so much. That’s worthy and notable.
But to be honest, like many others right now, our lives are in a bit of disarray at the moment.
Maybe it will come to me down the line. I hope there’s time for reflection and words. But right now, it’s not going to happen.
Next up, a long journey, 14-day quarantine, and time with family. Beyond that, no clue.
I guess the not knowing would make a lot of people uncomfortable, especially parents of young children and in a pandemic.
But we’ve been here before. Not the pandemic, of course, but the not-knowing.
Fortunately for us, our adaptive and minimalist lifestyle, life experiences, and professional skillsets have positioned us well for tackling the challenges and uncertainty that lay ahead.
For now, we’re taking each day as it comes.
We’ve got plenty of little logistical hurdles to clear in the coming days and weeks which will certainly keep our minds off the longer-term.
And, we’re so excited for spending some long-overdue quality time with parents, siblings, and a handful of socially-distanced meetups with close friends after 20 months apart.
Tomorrow, it’s Phnom Penh to Taipei. Then, on to Seattle, and into the Lion’s den.
Covid looms large over everything right now. We have no idea what’s kosher and what’s uncouth, and which social moors we are bound to break first.
We have a general idea of where our closest family and friends stand on the Covid comfort spectrum, but as for everyone else, we’ll mask up, keep our distance, and wait and see.
In some ways, it feels like we’re boarding a spaceship to another planet, where everyone must be approached with care and suspicion.
In short, it promises to be like no other trip “home” we’ve made, and one we’ll undoubtedly talk about for years to come.
All that’s left now is to get our luggage and ourselves to the airport, survive a trans-Pacific long haul flight with two toddlers, and avoid catching the virus of the century.
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