Category Archives: Cambodia


nos•Ÿtal•Ÿgia [no-stal-juh]

Noun: A wistful desire to return in thought or fact to a former time in one’s life, to one’s home or homeland, or to one’s family and friends; a sentimental yearning for the happiness of a former place or time: a nostalgia for his college days.

They say hindsight is 20/20. That may be true right after the fact, but as time goes on, one can often view the past through rose colored glasses. This is particularly true for me, but I think it is true for most people. As the days and months, and years pass, the details of an experience can fade and only the good or the bad things, the highlights, remain. Many of the events that I talk about are out of the ordinary events, leaving your comfort zone whether it be through travel, overcoming hardship, etc.

“Perfect,’ like ‘happy,’ tends to sneak up on you. Once you find it – like Thomas Keller says – it’s gone. It’s a fleeting thing, ‘perfect,’ and, if you’re anything like me, it’s often better in retrospect” (Bourdain 272).


Airports and airplanes have always been a source of excitement for me. Whenever I am going to an airport and getting on an airplane it means I am at the beginning or end of an adventure. This sense of anticipation associated with them makes me love to fly, even with the cons of flying, like airport security lines, cramped seating, bad food, delays, etc.

One year ago today I was getting on a plane to fly to Asia. I was filled with excitement, anticipation, anxiety, and a tinge of fear. In all this time I think that my view of that trip has changed drastically. This post is about that feeling of nostalgia.


I had a tough time while in Cambodia. A bit of culture shock, combined with the food (or lack thereof) and the god awful heat/humidity really took its toll on my psyche. That being said, looking back on the experience now, I would not trade it for anything. The harshness and pain of my time there has faded and the rewards and highlights of the good have remained. This is a basic human evolutionary trait about the fear of the unknown. Nostalgia as a sense of the longing for a former time or place is a testament to the human idea of the comfort of the familiar. While you are in the present, anything can happen, but in the past, things have already happened and there is no uncertainty, no doubt about whether or not you can succeed or thrive.

In my case, the Cambodia trial was something that was hard, but I was able to overcome, therefore I look back on it as a conquerable event, and not something that I am unsure about whether I can get through the ordeal, a source of pride in my accomplishment. This is true with most things in life. I can laugh off the time I almost stepped on a scorpion, my severe dehydration, random crime in the capital, and getting lost in the wilderness of the Cambodian farmland/jungle and worrying about landmines. It’s a funny thing how my brain has trivialized these encounters in the past year.

I almost stepped on this scorpion walking down the road one night. It was the first scorpion I had ever seen.

I almost stepped on this scorpion walking down the road one night. It was the first scorpion I had ever seen.

A large contributing factor to the feelings that I have for my time in Cambodia is the way I left. By the last week of my time there, I had gotten used to much of the shenanigans associated with Cambodia, so it did not affect me too much. However, I did not stay so long as to become miserable again. It was the sweet spot of just getting comfortable (as much as someone like me can in a place like Cambodia) with my surroundings and situation. While leaving was a welcome relief to the sweltering heat, it was a bittersweet departure. I still believe that to this day. Cambodia is a magically different place in a world that is increasingly becoming more and more similar. This experience will stick with me for the rest of my life and make me a much more rounded person. I will not jump at a chance to go back any time soon, but someday I might, if just to revisit the places I have been to chase that feeling of nostalgia again.

To be continued…

I will end on a quote from Anthony Bourdain, one of my favorite public figures:

“I was wondering how a miserable, manic-depressive, overage, undeserving hustler like myself – a utility chef from New York City with no particular distinction to be found in his long and egregiously checkered career – on the strength of one inexplicably large score, could find himself here, seeing this, living the dream.

I am the luckiest son of a bitch in the world, I thought, contentedly staring out at all that silence and stillness, feeling, for the first time in a while, able to relax, to draw a breath unencumbered by scheming and calculating and worrying. I was happy just sitting there enjoying all that harsh and beautiful space. I felt comfortable in my own skin, reassured that the world was indeed a big and marvelous place.” (Bourdain 123-124).

Works Cited:

Bourdain, Anthony. A Cook’s Tour. HarperCollins Publishers; 2001.



How to approach this topic? I don’t want to seem biased or make any harmful judgments. It is for this reason, (and procrastination) that I have taken so long to write this post.

The later part of my time in Hong Kong saw my culture shock diminish as I got used to the differences. However, in Cambodia (and very briefly Thailand), the culture shock I experienced was much more intense. While the Hong Kong’s shock lasted about a day and a half, Cambodia’s lasted two weeks—actually more, I am still not totally adjusted after three weeks, but it is significantly better now.

My first couple weeks here were a major struggle. I left from weather that was about 10˚F with very low humidity, and came to 95˚F with VERY high humidity. As someone who does not deal well with heat in the first place, this was difficult to deal with. However, I expected to have to battle heat, but I was not expecting the horrible humidity. Even just sitting in on my bed with a fan going full blast directly at me could not stop me from sweating. I woke up in a pool of my own perspiration every morning, assuming I actually got to sleep at all—which was not very often and never for long. Thinking straight was harder because it felt like my brain was melting. I told myself that I just needed to wait till my blood thinned out again and it would get better. But the feeling of constant filthiness (which will always make me grumpy), heat exhaustion, and dehydration broke me down that first week. This was largely in part because since it was my first week, I did not have any regular duties to perform to take my mind off of how uncomfortable and miserable I was. I just stewed in my desolation and had no relief.

Nothing here works well and everything is inefficient. In my three weeks so far, the power has gone out twice. Each time was for about 3 hours. As if it wasn’t bad enough when the power goes out, so do the fans and my laptop (I brought my old shitty one with a 5 minute battery life). It starts to get sweltering hot in the house, and with candles lit it becomes even worse. I was dripping sweat into my own meal during dinner. People are also working on Cambodian time. Every day they take a 3 hour lunch from 11-2. This is unbearable to me, coming from America where half the time I would work straight through my lunch. Appointments are the same way. I was waiting in the house for a carpenter to bring some bunk beds; he was due at 2 o’clock. 3:30 rolls by and still no sign of him. He finally shows up at 4, two hours late. It is like this with everyone.

On top of the weather, the whole area is extremely poor. Now this is sad and I am not trying to seem like some stuck up American and belittling the people for not having much, but while I walk around and get stared at all the time, I feel embarrassed. I cannot control where I was born, but that doesn’t make me feel any better. Being stared at all the time makes it very awkward. Part of my internship is to go out to the poorest area of the district and interview families to determine their ability to run a business with as potential grant recipients. Therefore I see the worst of the worst situations. Some of the children out there have never seen a white person before and there were varying reactions. They ranged from terrified and running away, to grabbing my arms and legs and stroking my “pretty” white skin. It was very uncomfortable. This part didn’t surprise me too much, when my family and I were in Beijing, we were stared at constantly. I also thought I had seen poor neighborhoods before, but nothing compared to this. Even with the widespread poverty, everyone seems in good spirits and is timid, but friendly.

One of the grant families

One of the grant families

A nicer street

On a quick social structure and history tangent, I think that the Khmer Rouge Era really messed up all of the countryside as well as the country as a whole. The genocidal lunatics killed all of the people who had any sort of brainpower and sent everyone else into the countryside to become farmers. Pol Pot (the Khmer Rouge leader) had some sort of deranged agrarian society dream, but instead of using the rice to feed his people, he sold it all to China in exchange for guns to fight the Vietnamese. I think that the reason the people in the countryside are so poor is because the repercussions from this time are still being felt to this day. People always remember the Holocaust and the havoc wreaked there, but this was almost as bad and took place 30 years closer to today.

But back to the topic, it was like I had died and gone to a burning hell. I was about to just quit and go home, I was so miserable. Thankfully, the group was planning a trip to Phnom Penh the first weekend I was there, so I had an escape. We went out and saw the children’s school that was turned into a political prison and torture camp. Then we went out to the Killing Fields where the Khmer Rouge held more prisoners and (obviously) killed them. Very uplifting stuff. On the way out to the Killing Fields, my friend Ollie and I stopped at an old military base where they have a bunch of guns that people can shoot. We both shot a clip from a AK-47 and then I fired off 100 rounds from an M60. I’m glad that we did this before seeing the Killing Fields because it was quite a downer and would feel very inappropriate to go shoot a bunch of machine guns. Granted, most of the victims were not killed by guns, but still.

After my first two weeks, things started to get much better. Four more volunteers came the next weekend: three really nice (and pretty) British girls and one 17 year old dweeb from Colorado who I would have to live in a tiny room with. This last week was very busy as I had to interview 14 more families and help administer business training to people who have already been selected to receive grants. Since I was so busy, and the house was livelier, I was able to keep my mind off of the heat and any other problems I was having. I also just stopped caring about being hot and sweaty all the time.

The other night I was talking to Kim and Charlotte, the local coordinators. They expressed how happy they were with my work here, the way I conduct myself, and the ease with which I have spent my time. It was by no means easy for me, but as local coordinators, they have enough problems so I did not want to add on to them by being a pain in the ass.  I apparently have been the volunteer that has complained the least. They even jokingly said they want to steal my passport and kidnap me to make me stay. After my first week here they weren’t too sure I would make it as well as I did, but I overcame the adversity and made the best of my time here. It really makes me happy to hear this because I really was having a tough time and I wasn’t sure I was doing any good. Kim and Charlotte are good people. They work really hard under difficult circumstances and do good work here.

The day after tomorrow I will be heading back to the United States. The temperature is supposed to be -2˚ when I get back. Another 100˚ swing on the way back. I’ll be happy to not be sweating all the time. It will be sweet to go back to civilization and cool weather. But it will also be bitter that my journey is over and I will leave this place and probably not see any of these people for a long time (if ever again). I think that this experience has made me a better person in the end and I am glad that I fought through and didn’t give up after that first week. See you in a few days United States!

Thailand to Cambodia

My arrival procedure was to fly into Bangkok and take a bus from there to the Poi Pet border of Thailand and Cambodia. This was quite an adventure. By myself, with a huge duffel bag and a large backpack and an idealistic attitude. Once I crossed the border, I was to be picked up by the local coordinator and driven to my final destination is Battambang.

Once I landed in Bangkok and make my way through immigration, I needed to take a cab to the Ho Chi Mit Bus Terminal. I had to really hassle with the cab driver to get him to only take me to the bus terminal. He was basically begging me to have him drive me to the border. Eventually I get to the station and am confronted by totally different languages and culture than anything I have ever seen before. To quote Bill Bryson:

“That’s the glory of foreign travel, as far as I’m concerned. I don’t want to know what people are talking about. I can’t think of anything that excites a greater sense of childlike wonder than to be in a country where you are ignorant of almost everything. Suddenly you are five years old again. You cant read anything, you only have the most rudimentary sense of how things work, you can’t even reliably cross a street without endangering your life. Your whole existence becomes a series of interesting guesses.“

I had to wander around the bus station for quite a while before I was able to get my bearings and find the window I wanted. I get a ticket for the border and wait a while till the bus is ready to leave. I am finding the heat much warmer here than in Hong Kong. Thankfully, the bus was air conditioned. Sure it smells like fish, but that is a trade-off I am willing to make.

While sitting on the bus waiting for departure, I was reading my book, Vagabonding by Rolf Potts. A white man and his wife/girlfriend (backpackers by the looks of them) walk by and he says how the book is very good and he has a copy in his bag. It is always nice to show some camaraderie on the road. It seems like he is living the vision expressed in the book.

From the bus

From the bus

My impressions of Thailand from out the window of the bus (not very authentic, I know), are that it looks a bit like Florida, but maybe after a hurricane and with mountains in the background

After the six and a half hour bus ride (only supposed to take 4 hours), we get off at near the border. As soon as you step out, you are swarmed by locals offering things. I make my way past them and grab my bags, only to realize that I have no idea which way to go and there are no signs around. I spot some westerners from my bus walking confidently away, so I take a chance and start to follow them. My gamble paid off, as they were heading to the border as well. I catch up and talk to them as we go and find out they have already acquired visas too, so we skip the super long lines to head to Thai exit immigration. There is only one line, so I let them go first since they were nice enough to show me the path. We part ways here and exchange words of good luck.

Now this is the first time I have ever crossed a border on land (other than driving to Canada, but that hardly counts), and I always assumed that it was basically just a line in the sand with officers checking passports and such on either side. At this border, that is not the case at all. There is like a no man’s land in between the border offices that is filled with casinos and all sorts of other stuff. I was quite baffled by this. As I walk out of the office, I get swarmed again, but this one man is really persistent. I start explaining to him that I’m getting picked up and don’t need a ride, when he says, “wait are you an American from Chicago?” Taken aback, I say yes, and he says he knows the guy who is supposed to pick me up. Now I am skeptical of this, but he takes me across the street to a man who asks the same thing and when I say yes, he goes, “Oh you must be Tim Hanlon! I was sent to meet you here and take you through the Cambodian side to the car!” I’m relieved. Most of the signs were not in English and I would have had some difficulty finding the other border office without this guy’s help.

I make it through and find the car (the driver had sent this guy to find me and help me get to him), in which myself and another volunteer–who was there to renew her visa–head to Battambang. After that all-day fiasco, I had planned on sleeping in the car. But driving in Cambodia is absolutely insane. There are tons of scooters and motorbikes on the roads at all times, and the car would get so close to them that if I wanted to, I could roll down the window, reach out, and squeeze someone’s brakes if I wanted to. Almost everyone drives recklessly. For example: passing on the narrow roads with just a few meters to spare from getting in a head on collision. We almost died a few times. It is safe to say that I got no sleep in the car.

We finally arrive at the volunteer house at 8pm, just 16 hours after I began the journey that morning. But I have finally arrived to my home for the next month.