Wednesday, June 30, 2010


Today is last day of June. I cannot believe it. What is it with the passage of time here? Some moments, I'm quite aware how a week dissolves with a blink of an eye, and other times, it feels as if I've been here for months, doing this work for months, having these conversations with these people for months.

Last night, my Aussie flatmate and I sat on our dark terrace until the wee hours of the morning, chatting about his experiences working with the ECCC on the Khmer Rouge trials and his experiences as an expat in Cambodia. To him, two years passed quickly and eventfully, and in the not-so-distant horizon is his return to Melbourne, marking another significant shift in his life. I wonder how he will go back.

I cannot imagine, especially not right now, when I am still feeling my way, when I am still trying things on. It takes all my mental capacity to wrap my head around the image of a brownish-red me teetering sidesaddle on a motorbike, with a fresh baguette wedged under my arm, my mobile phone glued to my ear, and my sweat-drenched hair flying in all directions. Sadly, this an all too common image. I live in Phnom Penh, after all.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Afternoon Snacks

Where once I found myself taking afternoon breaks to grab pastries at Cafe Viale, I now rely on fried bananas or pork sandwiches as a pick-me-up during the day. This is dangerous. Usually, at about three o'clock, a few of us make our way through the zigzagging moto and car traffic, across the street to a small snack shop, where we pick up two barbequed pork skewers, papaya salad, and toasted buttery baguette -- the makings of a yummy sandwich.


My flatmate and I spent last night watching Glee and sketching out designs of dresses, rompers, and antique-laced (we hope) throw-overs we would like to have made at one of Phnom Penh's numerous custom tailor shops. We are heading to Olympic Market, and we are on the hunt for tribal and ikat prints.

This leather belt, available in my dear friend's new vintage etsy shop, is spot on.

Monday, June 28, 2010

An ocean

As lovely as life has been in Phnom Penh, there are days when I stare, wide-eyed in utter disbelief, into the staggering gulf between the different realities of life in this country.

Last Saturday, I attended a party in the riverside district. It was a warm evening, and I searched for a breeze on the rooftop, drinking in the scenery with a few glasses of red wine. I stared at the guests wading in the rooftop pool and at the seedy riverfront strip a few floors below, its streets teeming with locals who would push their wares into all hours of the night to the drunken foreigners and expats. The French hip hop dance troupe, whose show we attended at the French Cultural Center earlier that evening, was mingling hesitantly with the crowd, but not dancing because the music left much to be desired. The crowd, largely a mix of German and French expats, had quite a few lawyers and ECCC employees. The whole scene was dripping with Western affluence, very comfortable for me, yet somehow estranged, surreal.

A little more than a day later, I stood on the Boeung Kak Lake development, once home to 20,000+ people, and the site of one of the largest and most contentious “forced evictions” in present day Cambodia (if development plans are implemented successfully, this will be the largest aggregate forced exodus in post-Khmer Rouge Cambodia). I accompanied my Khmer colleagues to learn about the affected families in this ongoing case. With no direct ingress to the lake, we carved a path through the wooden shanty homes, at times finding ourselves jumping through adjacent windows. We walked barefoot through families’ homes, very basic homes: dark wooden floors occasionally graced with sunlight, with one, maybe two, rooms, a square shack on stilts, jammed next to other squares, all blurring into one, against a backdrop of debris and derelict railway tracks. Eventually, we made it to the "lake," filled with sand and waiting for development to commence, the sound of water snail shells being crushed under our weight reminding us of what once was.

Later that day (and still dizzy from the morning's activities), I enjoyed a wonderful dinner with a colleague. While taking a post-dinner stroll through the park to meet a friend, we ran smack into a post-eviction community, 60+ villagers, whose homes were burned down due to some land concession/development altercation, the details of which I don't profess to know. From what my Khmer-speaking colleague gathered, the villagers journeyed to the city to appeal their possession rights to the land, though unsuccessfully. When we found them, they were crouched together, wearily, on the grass, enveloped in silence and in darkness, their remaining belongings in small black plastic bags. They had nothing and nowhere to go, as they were denied shelter in the nearby wat. (Usually, monks living in wats take in displaced people for the night.) And soon, a crowd of armed police and military swarmed around them, telling them to leave the park. They did.

Fortunately, one colleague was able to find the villagers temporary housing . . .

I understood these realities intellectually before I came to Cambodia. And yet, it is quite a different thing to grasp the contrast with your own eyes, to be confronted with yet another layer or two of life here, in such a short period of time.

This is just the beginning. I really need to toughen up.

Sunday, June 27, 2010


From top to bottom: Mina Stone, Rachel Comey, Mercy, and Steven Alan, all on sale at Stuart and Wright.

What Cambodia lacks in shopping opportunities, it makes up in its many custom tailor shops, where you can get a dress made, with perfectly-matched measurements, for about $15 USD. I took what was intended to be a leisurely stroll through Olympic Market this weekend and was overwhelmed by the choice of fabrics. I had to step away from handling all the printed silk fabrics and force myself to think about what I really wanted and what would actually work in this environment, both for work and for play.

I'm glad I did. Overbuying avoided. I haven't worked out the specifics yet, but I'd be happy to have some iteration of these frocks.

Don't get me started on the custom shoemakers . . . maybe next time.

Saturday, June 26, 2010


To celebrate the Queen's birthday, I did absolutely nothing in the countryside town of Kampot -- and that was exactly what I needed. A few highlights of my lazy weekend: sampling a Kampot pepper bread, tomato, and mango chutney melt at Epic Arts Cafe, a corner street cafe that supports creative and arts education for deaf Khmer youth; stumbling into a proper bookstore, where I thumbed through, and eventually purchased, cast-off editions of Garcia Marquez, Lahiri, and Murakami; strolling through the streets of the decaying French colonial town; visiting the local bakery, where you can purchase a bag of baguettes for 3,000 riel ($0.70 USD); and deciding on a bag of sweet bread for the bus ride home.

Friday, June 25, 2010


This would do quite well in Portland, I think.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010


Shwedagon Paya, in Yangon. Enough said.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010


One downside of rushing straight from my short travels in Myanmar/Burma to my new life in Cambodia was the absence of time to reflect on my experiences in what has, in retrospect, become one of the most stunning, if not fascinating, countries I have ever visited. I acknowledge the debate between going and not going, between supporting an oppressive military junta through tourist dollars and not, and the reality that a dichotomy between the two choices does not exist. I will not use this space to rehash the debate -- it is a personal decision, hopefully one made after some thought, and my decision was to go, and to go responsibly.

Beyond the oft-debated politics of travel in that country, there are the oft-forgotten people, those eking an existence out of a dwindling tourist industry, those who still have to live in the country. As a whole, the Burmese were the warmest and most hospitable people I met on my travels. During my time there, I was invited to dine with families, offered gifts (such as the orange flowers, given to me by two children during a walk in the red-soiled mountainside town of Kalaw), and thanked by fiercely proud locals for visiting their country. There was an openness and a sincerity I encountered that thawed my jaded traveller heart -- I believe I'm fairly open-- and that this existed, in light of the current political climate, was humbling.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

An old fling

In undergrad, I had a brief affair with tie dye. Then obsessed with collecting vintage slips and realizing my entire collection was of a nondescript ivory/tea-stain color, I tried my hand at craftiness, in my bathtub, with burnt red dye. The product was OK -- not great. My bathtub did not fare so well.

Shabd's Simon Alexander is offering a tie dye workshop, and, if I was still stateside, I'd give it a go. I've had my eye on some of her pieces for a few months now.

Friday, June 18, 2010

le balloon rouge.

summer day from jeana sohn on Vimeo.

I sit, barefoot, in an internet cafe in Kampot, a sleepy country town that sprawls reluctantly across the Prek Kampong Bay. Around me, chickens and dogs run, and children chase each other, with muffled giggles and light footsteps. I am enjoying the cool breeze that comes and goes. With it comes fragrant, buttery wafts from the baguette bakery, just a few meters down the street. I am so enjoying this time alone. It is a perfect summer day.

Adding to the loveliness: Jeana's latest video diary. Enjoy.


via Refinery29

I'm not going to lie -- I miss my pretty dresses and Rachel Comey shoes, though I agree that dusty Phnom Penh is no place for ivory silk Mayle dresses. And yet, the heat and humidity, coupled with constant socializing, has made go through my nearly two suitcases of dresses so very quickly.

I am craving. Big time.

I hunted down those cream RC sandals on Madewell guru Gigi Guerra after spotting them at Impulse years before. But, like many other creature comforts, I left them in Los Angeles.

Madewell is online, huh? Trouble? Perhaps. I will think about it and other things this weekend, while lazing in the countryside town of Kampot. It is the Queen's birthday, which spells my first Cambodian three-day weekend.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Out and About

Phnom Pehn can be a difficult city to digest. The dizzying movement, chaos, and oppressive heat that greeted me upon my arrival have not let up -- they immediately accost you once you step outside the comfort of your home. Only my expectations have shifted. Each time I peel off another layer of this city to examine, I realize just how staggering the gulf is between what I believed life would be in Cambodia and how life really is, how simultaneously foreign and familiar, alarming and comforting.

In the search to embrace some shred of normalcy in an otherwise patently foreign environment, I've been doing some strange-for-me things, such as spending inordinate amounts of time cooking and thinking about cooking for my flatmates and new friends. (Thank you, Jennifer, for the magic tomato sauce recipe.) I do this despite my oven-hot kitchen, which unfortunately does not even house an oven. And I do this despite the fact that it can be significantly cheaper to eat out than to cook.

Dancing is another strange development. Lots of dancing. Last night, we attended yet another show hosted by the French Cultural Center, this time headlining French hip hop/band, Java. There was rap, an accordian, guitars, French words I could not understand, dancing in the humid night air, and, at some point, a bag of baguettes on stage. It was strange and wonderful. And so much fun.

Friday, June 11, 2010


The weeks are flying by. Between the constant motorbike zigzagging, the growing pile of work on my desk, the many meetings catered with Khmer pastries, and the varied social gatherings, I barely have a chance to catch my breath, to drink it all in, in measure, quietly and slowly.

The rain has arrived. This week, it pounded the streets of the city, relentlessly, accompanied by gusty winds that toppled outdoor furniture, the sound of rumbling thunder, and brilliant flashes of light. Once, I watched for the storm on my terrace, but all I could see was indistinguishable grey above the tiled rooftops.

This is kind of a more disjointed post than my usual -- I'm just checking in. I'm on a mission this weekend: a $5 massage and sauna, a pedicure, a few dresses made (more on that later), a movie, and the usual exploration. I am determined to find sun-dried tomatoes in Phnom Penh.

But before I go, and to add to the disjointedness even more, a few random pictures of life in Myanmar.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010


I lucked out with my living situation. Truly. I live a few minutes away from work, and I have two flatmates with whom I share the two-story Khmer home. A cleaning lady visits us twice a week to erase traces of the week's flurry and to do our laundry, always air-dried by the heat of the sun-soaked terrace.

A few days ago, my Khmer-Aussie flatmate surprised us with smoked salmon and capers, brie, olives, crunchy baguettes, and prosciutto! Until then, the thought of Western comfort food hadn't seriously plagued my mind, but I was quite happy to nosh on the treats while I watched a documentary and let my mind wander.

I thought of Portland, of Sunday brunches with Mami, Jeanice, and Connie, and of running to the grocery store to buy picnic supplies before short summer hikes in the Columbia Gorge. I thought of how green the city must be, how rain-soaked still, and how excited I was, this time of year, to peel off another layer of clothing to celebrate the cusp of summer. And I shook my head and laughed, as I thought of the chain of events that led me to live in Cambodia, where I carry a motorbike helmet to go anywhere, where I apply a layer of 45 SPF sunscreen everytime I leave the house and where I consume too many mango shakes, where I've learned to sit sidesaddle on the back of a motorbike when wearing a dress (nearly always), and where the idea of life here, at this moment anyway, seems very strangely right.

How weird is that?

Monday, June 7, 2010

Temple Hop

Evidence of the 114 degree heat in sleepy Bagan--not ideal for temple-hopping--still shows on my skin, now a reddish brown wash. The crumbling temples were beautiful and full of life: locals beating the heat by napping in the shadows of the cool stony alcoves, families sharing a meal of varied deep-fried vegetables and tea, children laughing and running, and youth touting postcards and laquerware to the few foreigners who passed through. Most of the time, however, I had an entire temple to myself.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

"Good Karma" Dress

via Wiksten

Life in Phnom Penh remains largely disorienting, though things are falling into place, slowly. I'm becoming familiar with the streets surrounding my flat, and I hope, this weekend, to extend my explorations to other parts of the city. I'm developing a morning routine: music, a cold shower, words exchanged with flatmates, a motorbike helmet (my newest purchase), a Cambodian iced coffee, spiked heavily with sweet condensed milk, purchased at the small shop I pass by every morning, where I point, the owner nods, and we both laugh as she makes my drink. My walk to the office is short -- just four minutes or so -- but the heat grips you quickly here, and soon you are covered in beads of sweat.

My colleagues, both local and expat, are a warm, dedicated bunch, and though I've only borne witness to their work for a short period, I'm already feeling inspired and excited. I'm wrapping my head around Cambodian law, international law, and the realities of work here. More on that later.

And months later, I still want this dress by Wiksten. No doubt it is sold out.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Local Market

Exploring local markets in foreign countries is one of my favorite things to do -- they can be great places to drink up color, texture, and movement. These are sights from a small market near Inle Lake, in Myanmar.
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