Sensory Overload in Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh, Cambodia introduces herself with a blast of intense hot, humid air the second you step off the plane.

After that, the sensory onslaught never lets up. Leaving the airport there’s a crowd of people waiting for family and Tuk Tuk drivers barking for clients. Mixed with the sound of motorcycle engines, the overwhelming noise was disorienting after the quiet inside the airport.  As you continue into the city, the smells begin to collect: gasoline, banana, dust, urine, and durian. The smells and sounds ebb and flow, but never dissipate completely. Thankfully my friend S was there to guide me when I arrived; the collection of sights, sounds, and smells was overwhelming and disorienting after two days of traveling.

Phnom Penh isn’t large, but its growing thanks to construction and modernization projects which seem to be around every corner.  Old structures are being retrofitted with luxury condos and tall modern office complexes are on the rise in every direction. Concrete roads are being built to replace the dirt ones leading into the city and much needed stoplights are going in at major intersections.

The traffic was one of the things that was difficult for this westerner to get used to. The moped or motorcycle is the vehicle of juice and drivers take full advantage of their ability to sneak along side or through small openings in traffic. Rules and right of ways are suggestions, dividing lines and roundabouts are routinely ignored. The brave can rent a moto or bicycle and join the throng… but I’m not that brave. I walked around the city, crossing intersections when I dared or took a Tuk Tuk, a covered cart pulled by a motorcycle.

building B at Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

On my one day to walk around on my own, I went to Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Also known as S-21, Tuol Sleng was a prison and torture center under the Khmer Rouge.  My friend S was working with the testimony from the Khmer Rouge trail and had told me a little about the atrocities committed under the regime, but being physically surrounded by the evidence was intensely emotional. I spent nearly four hours walking through the buildings and taking in the stories on the audio tour.

wooden cells in Building B

There are graphic images and stories of the torture throughout and a quiet uneasiness followed me around the grounds. Photographs of some of the 17,000 victims to go through this prison stare at you, somehow both pleading and resigned. The personal stories and testimony from survivors made me sick to my stomach. Before you leave the grounds, you can speak with two of the only seven survivors. Both gentlemen have written books about their experiences and are happy to sign a copy for you. I walked out of the quiet grounds into the noise and smells of Phnom Penh a solemn and emotional wreck, but I wouldn’t have missed the experience for the world.


overheated? coconut water is nature’s gatorade







yellow brick road to the Royal Palace


A few minutes north is the Royal Palace and Wat Preach Keo. These two sites are open to the public for a small entrance fee, but closed for lunch from 11am-2pm.

Unfortunately, this was exactly when I reached them, so I was only able to view from the outside. They are quite beautiful traditional structures, adorned with gold. The streets immediately facing have been blocked off to traffic and tourists walk freely along the sidewalks. The afternoon sun has an intense direct heat, with the shade feeling ten degrees cooler.


Shortly after I gave up and took a Tuk Tuk away from the heat and tourists, through the cacophony and smells, to S’s place and collapsed on a bed. Phnom Penh is both amazing and exhausting.


Dia de Todos Almas en Costa Rica

Dia de Todos Almas, or All Souls Day, occurs every year on November 2.  Recognized in many countries throughout Latin America, it is also referred to as All Saints Day (Dia de Todos Santos, November 1) or Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos). Each country has its own rituals and ways to mark the day’s passing, unique to the local culture.

CRasd2In 2014 Mum and I happened to be in Costa Rica on Dia de Todos Almas. There it’s a quiet, family holiday where people attend church services and leave flowers on the graves of their relatives.  We drove past a small local cemetery outside of Jaco and decided to stop.  The ground was wet from the morning rain and the skies grey and thick with clouds.  You could hear the wind rustle through the leaves, but otherwise it was silent.  We didn’t speak: it somehow felt as though we shouldn’t. Together we walked through the iron fence and slowly up the muddy hill.

CRasd1Most of the tombs were raised, some decorated with unique tiles and all marked  with a cross of either stone or metal.  It was early afternoon, and families must have been there earlier to mark the day. A number of the graves were decorated with brightly colored flowers of pink, red, orange, and yellow. They made a strong, beautiful contrast against the white stone and the dark sky.   We wandered around for a few more minutes, took some photographs, and then went back out the gate we came in.   It was only once we were in the car that we spoke again.


Heightened Senses, Simple Moments

My senses are more alert as I experience Uruguayan life from an “insider’s view.” I pick up on the slightest nuances and reflect on the messages of my surroundings. The language of nature speaks differently to me here – and beckons me to listen.











Allow me to take you on a sensory trigatitop of my morning… I awake to the sun peeking through the cracks of the shutters. I open my window to reach through the bars, giving the heavy wooden panels a healthy push, allowing a rush of sunlight into my room. The cat leaps onto the window sill, chirps her morning greeting, and enters my room. Because there are no screens, the gatito comes and goes through whatever window from which she begs to enter or exit.

Wild parakeets make a ruckus from their family-sized nests in the pine trees in opposite corners of the yard. I was excited to photograph them downtown Montevideo, only to learn that many reside right in my sister’s back yard.

The smell of coffee lures me to the kitchen, where I greet Bettina with a quick “buen-dia” and for once, make my own breakfast. Unaccustomed to a maid, I make my own bed, but she does all of the family’s cooking, cleaning, shopping, laundry and pet care. Now that their grown kids come and go, the massive guard dogs have been promoted to babies. Note the term “guard FullSizeRenderdogs?” I’ll admit to engaging in a stare-down with one, but assure you I will not be personally greeting the intimidating creatures. I was initially incognito, but they now know where I am since the morning they caught me opening my shutters and awoke the neighborhood with deep, loud alto songs.

I digress… Bettina has been with the family for eight years and runs the household. After one week, I can see why. A doctora, Mercedes juggles three medical positions and visits hospitalized patients at the end of her workday before night calls begin to stream in. Alejandro is an engineer and works an extended day himself.

This morning Bettina has secured the dogs so I can establish my portable job hunting office in the sunny back yard – in my pajamas, of course. It doesn’t take long for me to go from fleece to tank top, as my skin drinks in the warmth of today’s unseasonably toasty sun.

Somewhere off in the distance a wood flute injects organic sounds into the warm air. Just three blocks from the beach, I sense it may be coming from that direction. The music reminds me of this slightly  slower paced way of life (with the exception of speed-demon drivers) and a culture that values family, friends and experiences over “things.”

Here and there, the faint echo of a dog’s bark reaches me, I suspect sometimes just chattering with other canines, but at other times incessantly warning of unrecognized humans. Seemingly everybody has dogs. And every building has bars telling would-be burglars they are unwelcome.

As I sit in the stillness of the morning, with the flute once again permeating the air, I cannot help but want to live this experience for a longer term. Two local job applications on the agenda for the day. To the sound of the CD I purchased at the street fair. Enjoy this exerpt…

StreetFairMusic by Los Soreños.