a quick note– villages can float!

Cambodia is home to the Tonle Sap, which is a large freshwater lake in the middle of the country. The Tonle Sap is really neat because it actually flows both ways, depending on the time of year. During the wet season, rainfall into the Mekong River increases to the point where the actually lake fills up. It increases in size from 2,500 to 13,000 square kilometers (at least I think, that is what I wrote on my final at least)! The Tonle Sap is also one of the world’s largest source of freshwater fish, and it provides 70-80% of Cambodia’s protein.

I know I might be boring some of the non-sciency folk, so I won’t stay on the topic for too long, but you should know this lake is no joke. In addition to providing habitat for millions of fish, the lake also provides homes for nearly 1/4 Cambodians. Many live on the floodplains near the lake and grow rice during the part of the year in which it is flooded, but some live actually on the waters of the lake in these crazy floating villages.

view of the lake from the roof of the restaurant we ate at!

boat buzzing by as we travelled to our homestay! (peep the water hyacinth)

I had the amazing privilege of seeing one of these floating villages, commonly called Prek Toal. Prek Toal is on the northwestern tip of the lake. During the wet season, the “streets” are very wide and the town is more spread out, but during the dry season, the city is much more tightly packed. This is because there is less water which brings the homes closer to one another. The lake is covered in an invasive plant known as water hyacinth, and the stuff gets stuck in boat motors and crowds out native plants. We made a pit stop at a community-based basket weaving project that turns the invasive plant into cool baskets, purses, and cups. After being briefly shown how the weaving works, I tried my hands at the sport. Turns out it is not my calling– the woman weaving immediately removed the pieces I weaved and redid them haha.

three hour birding session on the lake! lots of fun, lots of chaos! Check our me, staying hydrated as always

 

turning the invasive water hyacinth into a cool bowl!! resourceful amirite

During our time at the lake, I also had the privilege of spending the night in a homestay with an incredibly generous and kind Chinese-Khmer family. Two things about the homestay that I will never forget are the boats and the crocodiles. Raising crocodiles is a newfound livelihood on the lake. Many families (almost every family actually) has begun to raise and rear crocodiles for crocodile leather. The funny thing about crocodile rearing on the lake is that most families simply keep the crocodiles in small wooden boxes attached to their houses. Quite literally, there was only two walls of separation from me and the crocodiles when we were sleeping, which made falling asleep a little less inviting. Additionally, the boats that roam the lake lack mufflers. Our professors told us that they are four times louder than the legal limit, and after trying to sleep with them buzzing all night I would have to agree. Oh well, all in the name of adventure am I right?

In all honesty, I loved spending the night with local people. We interviewed them for a class assignment and learned a lot about the struggles of local livelihoods on the lake, especially with over-fishing and changes in water regimes from climate change. I’ll cut myself off again because I am sure I’m boring you all.

right before we got stuck in the mud!

In funnier news, the next day as we were leaving, we quite literally got stuck in the mud. The water level had dropped so much in the one night that we stayed at the lake that our boat got stuck in the banks on the way out. Seeing this as an opportunity to help (and cool off a little), we all hopped into the mud (waist deep) and pushed our boat into the deeper part of the channel, grinning and laughing even though the situation was actually quite grim.

Moments like that are some of my favorites. When things safely go wrong, opportunities for personal growth and reason for laughter tend to rise. Pushing a giant boat out of the sand is just one of many experiences this semester that have arisen from unintended circumstances, and I look forward to the next one.

Fleas in my boots; Tubers in my dreams

One of the problems with this blog is that I always want to start them off by feeding you the same cheesy line “Long time no talk”. Despite it being true, yet again, I will refrain from using it directly.

Instead, *clears throat* Hope things are going well on your side of the world! Welcome to another edition of “What’s in Sienna’s what?”: the Fleas and Tubers edition.

Spring is definitely in full swing here in Siem Reap. The days are getting longer and the heat is getting hotter. I’ve started to jump in the pool after class, after lunch, before dinner, after running, before going shopping, and even before going to bed! I know, I know, poor Sienna jumping into a refreshing pool all day, what a rough life… But to be fair, it is insanely hot (100+ degrees) and the humidity feels thicker than a slab of butter fresh out of the ice box.

Since we last spoke, we traveled to Phnom Penh, where we learned about some of the grisly details of the Khmer Rouge period in Cambodia. Seeing the torture center (S21) stirred up immense despair in my heart and twisted my stomach into indescribable knots. This is a happy blog so I will hold myself back from sharing more of my personal experience with the memorial, but it is shocking and brutal to say the least. I recommend if you visit Cambodia that you make a visit, but prepare yourself beforehand.

After our travels in the Cambodian Big apple, we flew back to Siem Reap and participated in Cambodia’s first World Wildlife Day. The event was all fun and games (literally) minus the fact that it was held in midday outside with little access to shade. Besides the unrelenting heat, it was actually really rewarding to interact and inform both expats and local Cambodians more about the endangered species of the area, among other conservation topics.

My peers and I (plus a Cambodian college student) working at World Wildlife Day.

What else did we do in the last two weeks? Well, we visited a degraded wetland area and performed line transects, which meant a lot of sloshing around in knee deep water trying to identify plants. After five hours of laughter, jokery and some occasional science, we all rode the bus home feeling soggy, smelly, and high-spirited. It was also on this trip that an unfortunate event took place unbeknownst to me. Inside of my knee high rubber boots, something feasted on my legs for the whole five hours we spent at the wetland. Funny enough, I didn’t notice until I peeled off my socks to (yep you guessed it) jump in the pool. All down my legs were these raised red bumps (at least 150 or more). Actually, they really haven’t gone away, so you could say the issue is still plaguing me. The positive side is that I can’t feel them and they don’t itch or hurt, so I don’t really care. Definitely not the most attractive look though, I should add.

In the past few weeks, we have also been writing and testing like mad. I’m talking three papers due in three days and four tests in 48 hours. It was ROUGH to say the least, but it was really exciting at the same time to display our learning on paper and reflect on some of the amazing experiences we’ve had. The reward to all the exams and paper writing came in the form of a dessert tour through town and our Directed Research selection. Directed Research is a separate course from the rest of our semester, where we spend 10 days collecting data in the field with our professors and then spend two weeks writing a fat paper about it. We were all bubbling with excitement as the professors told us the different projects, but I particularly bubbled over with delight about a project trying to understand why Cambodians use and cultivate a special kind of tuber, known at Protiel. For those of you who know me, the appeal of magical tubers is obvious. I have an obsession with sweet potatoes and magic is also pretty cool, so the project seemed like a dream come true.

 

Showing my enthusiasm for dessert during out dessert tour.

Tubers! Not like the ones I’ll be studying though. We gathered these from a traditional Bunong farm.

 

ow you’re probably thinking, what the heck does Sienna’s economics major have to do with traditional medicinal tubers? The answer is absolutely nothing. I’ve learned this semester to trust in my passions and sometimes throw logic to the wind. I’m not sure what I want to do with my life and I’m not even sure what I’m doing after I finish this blog post (Probably getting another cup of coffee actually), but the point is that I am so happy because I am attentive to my interests. A real-life example of shows in my constantly changing career plans. Every day we do something new in the field I say, “I’m doing my PhD in _____”. The latest was yesterday when a bat specialist came to tell us about Cambodian fruit bats. I called my mom and was like “I’m gonna be a bat specialist!” She probably rolled her eyes. Oh well, I’ll take eye rolling over apathy.

Until next time, my readers! Hope you enjoyed this post and I appreciate all of you who have the patience to read my work.

PS- We leave for Vietnam on Tuesday, so don’t expect another post for at least two weeks LOL

Frog in my toilet!

Hello all!

Long time, no talk. I know. But before you go declaring my procrastination, you should know I’ve been keeping very busy here in Cambodia. In fact, just last week we left for a two week trip around the countryside of Cambodia, which I am midway through right now. Currently, we are staying at Indigenous Peoples Lodge in Senmonorom, which is a small town in Eastern Cambodia.

I’ve had an incredible last few weeks and could probably blabber a few thousand words at you about some of the amazing experiences I’ve had, but instead I’ll give you an overview of our travels and focus on one moment that was particularly special (and funny).

We started our travels last Tuesday from Siem Reap heading towards a small ecotourism project in Northern Cambodia called BeTreed. It was so remote that at one point we had to get off our giant buses and ride these wacky mechanical cow tractor thingamajigs! We rode these tractors for about an hour through the dusty countryside to the camp, which was really scenic (and unfortunately really brutal on my butt bones).

riding on the Gow-Oun (mechanical cow) into BeTreed

 

After two nights exploring the fires ecology and learning about camera trapping at BeTreed, we headed out for the city of Kratie, which is a city on the famous Mekong River. Kratie is also famous for its proximity to a pool of Irrawaddy Dolphins. For those of you who aren’t too informed on endangered species in Cambodia, the Irrawaddy Dolphin is critically endangered with an estimated population of 85 individuals left. We had the wonderful opportunity to see some of these dolphins, as well as meet with WWF officials who fund a lot of the conservation efforts to save the dolphin while we were there.

After a few jam-packed days in Kratie, we set out in two different groups to Mondulkiri Province (where we are now). Our group spent the night here at IPL (Indigenous Peoples Lodge) and the other group spent the night at the nearby Jahoo Gibbon Camp. After spending one night here, we set out to the Elephant Valley Project (EVP) to spend the day with semi-captive wild elephants 🐘 ! To say that was an awesome experience would be an understatement. These animals are truly amazing and stunning to watch. Also, they eat for about 18 hours of the day which is kind of awesome.

semi-captive wild elephants getting their daily bath!! rub a dub dub 

the semi-captive elephant named Easy Rider!

After a day with elephants, we drove on over to the Jahoo Gibbon Camp to spend a night in hopes of hearing and seeing gibbons. We woke up at the bright and early hour of 4:30 AM to begin our trek into the forest listening for these elusive creatures. I should stop at this point and tell you that the sound of a Gibbon calling to its fellow Gibbon buddies is like nothing else I have experienced. They sound like these crazy songbird/robot combos, so you know you’ve heard them once they start. They called for a while and then when the sun rose, we actually had the opportunity to watch a group of six of them swing energetically from branch to branch. Again, quite an unwritable experience, especially in 100 words, so please use your creative wits to imagine the sounds and experience.

mangosteen at the local market in Kratie! I had to buy some using only Khmer haha.

And that adventure leads me to where I am now, sitting on the porch of my indigenous hut at IPL with my roommate, frantically typing this post in the twenty minute period between our language class and our ethics & development course. We are spending two more nights here interviewing indigenous communities and learning about highland farming techniques before zooming off to Phnom Penh for a few days to learn about some more of the recent history of Cambodia. After that, we will head back to Siem Reap and lead the country’s first organized World Wildlife Day event with local university students.

At this point you’re probably wondering where the inspiration for this blog post’s title came from. The story begins this morning, February 28, at 5:30 AM. Here I am, laying peacefully in bed when I get startled awake by my roommate’s concern over our new bathroom guests– two giant tree frogs.

She yelped somewhat worriedly “There are frogs in our bathroom” followed by “Oh well, I’m going pee anyway.”

I think to myself ‘Alright cool, problem solved, no biggy’,  but before I can even respond to her,  I hear “Holy crap they’re coming for me”,  followed by “They’re on the toilet seat” and finally, “They’re in the toilet, Help!”

At this point, my curiosity got the better of my comfortable sleeping position, so I slumbered into the bathroom. What do I find but the hilarious sight of my roommate frantically freaking out and a pair of frogs, one clambering around the rim of the toilet seat and one hiding inside of the toilet bowl. As you can probably imagine, the situation got funnier and funnier as we made various wimpy attempts to ethically remove them out the toilet and toilet bowl. In case anyone was curious, we recruited another classmate and were finally successful (Thanks Nate!).

This story is one of thousands that I’ve had the pleasure to help create this semester. As I reflect back on my experiences and write this, I keep thinking of more instances in which laughter got the better of me or instances in which my comfort zone was stretched in strange or mysterious ways. I cannot wait until the next blog-title worthy moment presents itself and I hope you look forward to reading (and hopefully giggling) it as well.

There are Mosquitoes in my Coffee.

Welcome to my second blog post! Thanks for the positive comments and encouragement on the first one. One of my first assignments here at school was to write a blog for the SFS (School For Field Studies) website. In this assignment, I  had to answer questions about my initial reactions to Cambodia, the center, and our classes. Of course, being the ingenuous person that I am, I decided to sneak that post into this post. As our Angkor tour guide famously said last week in broken English, “Two stones one bird”.

Below are the questions they asked me and my answers! Enjoy.

Why did you choose to study abroad with SFS?

There is something magical about the way experience transforms into education. There is also something intriguing to me about Southeast Asia and the conservation issues here. For those two reasons, SFS stuck out to me. School For Field Studies is also a nifty program because it bridges the gap between experiential learning, cultural immersion, and environmental science. To be completely fair about why I chose SFS, several good friends and fellow students at my college also told me that their SFS experience was quote-on-quote “the best experience of my life”, which is a pretty hard claim to ignore.

What are your first impressions of the country?

My first impression of Cambodia is that it is a beautiful and vibrant country rich with culture. The red dirt here swirls around my feet and the blue sky expands infinitely above me. This is a place where roosters crow and songbirds chirp in delightful choruses. Green plants of all shapes and sizes sprawl across the dusty landscape, reminding me of the tropical landscape in which Cambodia is placed. At the same time, the atmosphere here feels simultaneously feels gentle and harsh. The people and weather feel calm and gentle, but the landscape coloration and the noises here are loud, both in volume and in variety.  I have only been here one week and I can already tell I’ve grown an attachment to this place and the people who live in it.

What are your first impressions of the Center?

Based on my first week here, it seems to me that the center here in Siem Reap goes the whole nine yards in providing us with the best resources and facilities needed to excel in the classroom. It is not unusual for us to splash in the pool in between classes to cool off or to toss a volleyball around during the lunch break. Speaking of food, the dishes here are unparalleled (sorry to my home dining hall). Our cook (Moli?) works ceaselessly to provide us with fresh fruits, vegetables, and local cuisine and her hard work is one of the reasons this center feels like such a home to me. The center has everything we need and more, and I look forward to spending my next three months here.

What do you think the biggest challenge will be for you this semester both academically and culturally?

I think something I struggle with academically is knowing when I need self-care time. Here at the center, students are constantly together laughing, studying, chatting, swimming, painting toenails (you name it!) and I have a hard time saying no to participating in everything. Hopefully, I can strike a balance between my social activities and my personal “recharge” time. Culturally speaking, I think the language barrier will be the hardest roadblock to overcome. We take a short language class but I know that it will not be enough to communicate all that I want to say, which might become frustrating at times.

What are you looking forward to the most about the semester?

I can’t wait to see how my classmates and I grow in our understanding of conservation issues along the Mekong. I am also looking forward to being able to form a coherent sentence in Khmer (the local language) and to doing field work on an issue I am really passionate about. I also can’t wait to try more of the local food and learn more about the intricacies of Cambodian culture.

Give three words that best describe how you are feeling right now.

Hot, Eager, Immersed.

I’m eager because I am excited for what the rest of the semester will hold for me and I cannot wait to take part in all the activities and field work that our classes provide for us. I chose the word hot because it’s literally hot outside and I am not used to having summer temperatures in February (which is a pretty good problem to have ).  The word immersed stuck out to me because I feel like here at the Center, academics follow you everywhere and it’s easy to find yourself engaged in class work outside of the classroom. We all live, eat, laugh and learn together which creates quite an interconnected learning environment.

On a closing note, I wrote this blog while slowly sipping on a large cup of black burned coffee. Upon further inspection into my coffee, I found several mosquitoes bobbing around in it like small lifeless ice cubes. I laughed and rolled my eyes. “Classic Cambodia” I whispered to myself with a smirk.

PS- The internet here is too fragile to upload photos, so I’m sorry but you’ll have to use your imagination on this one.

Was Voldemort a Savvy Traveler?

After being out of the USA only a little over a week, I’ve come to the conclusion that I am Voldemort’s clumsy cousin, accidentally leaving pieces of my soul behind everywhere I travel (For those of you who don’t know, Voldemort left chunks of soul all over the globe in his quest to become invincible).

I’m serious! In ten days of travel, I lost my personal debit card, face lotion, face wash, a single sock, three hair ties, 200 Baht, my pajama pants, and somehow found my mother’s credit card. At first it was kind of funny, but now I’m starting to think I might have a ‘losing’ problem. You might be thinking ‘Wow, this chick is some clueless traveler!’ and you wouldn’t be wrong. This is my first trip to Asia and boy, does it sure show! Oh, my name is Sienna by the way. Clearly, I’m not very experienced in this whole blog thing either.

Besides the whole ‘lost my debit card’ thing, this vacation has turned out quite splendidly. Thailand is a beautiful country and I know I only grazed the surface in the ten days I was here. I’m not sure who the audience on this page is, but I’m assuming you’d like to see some of our photos, so I’m gonna stick a few of in. Don’t worry if your jaw drops, mine did too.

Golden Mount Temple in Bangkok! Real shiny lookin’

first legal drink & first sunset in Bangkok! bucket list = shrinking

 

Molly and Nate looking out over Nam Pha Pa Yai camp! Good thing you can’t see our sweat lol

a model butterfly at the free butterfly garden in Lumphini Park

Ok, now that you’ve seen the cool photos and heard the Voldemort comparison, you’re probably wondering why you’re still reading yet another millennia’s “thrilling” travel blog. Don’t worry, I won’t care if you click off the page right now, but stick around and you just might get to hear one of those infamous face-palm Sienna travel stories that is sure to leave yourself in stitches.

One good story from my travels so far was my friend and I’s attempt to get to this remote jungle climbing camp via public transportation (LOL, I know). We began this day long journey by riding a train to this small town three hours north of Bangkok. From the station, we slowly waddled our way in the sweltering heat to a small bus stop outside of a large temple. Molly and Nate (my two travel buddies) plopped down besides me on the bench and we began to wait for this elusive bus. About one hour into our wait we saw a bus arrive and we were ENTHRALLED. We attempted to get on but it was very full and the driver didn’t look like he wanted more passengers on board. ‘Oh well, we’ll catch the next one’ I thought. One hour after the first attempt, I heard a bus rumbling towards us and I excitedly leapt up and declared, “We’re getting on that sucker whether its full or not!” Turns out it was a bus for factory workers in a nearby facility, and they had no interest in taking tourists to some jungle camp. Disheartened, we fell back to our stoops in the hot afternoon sun, hungry and tired of travel. Just when we least expected help, the Buddhist monk sitting next to us took pity and dialed up the camp we were going to (Monks know everything I guess) and told them to send a taxi. Thanks to that monk’s kind heart, we got a taxi ride and made it out of the blistering heat moments before an emotional meltdown.

After hopping onto this pickup truck/taxi car, the skies rapidly clouded and started to downpour rain on us shortly out of town. We all start laughing because in that situation what can you do? You’re traveling at 60 MPH down the highway in a thunderstorm and suddenly nothing else matters. We laughed and yelped and smiled during the whole bumpy 20 KM ride to the camp.

OK, enough story time, I know! Time to get on with the rest of this blog thing. Basically, I am writing this bad boy now because tomorrow I will embark on a semester of study abroad in the city of Siem Reap, Cambodia and I wanted to make a post about the ten days I spent in Thailand! I hope you all (if any of you readers are left), enjoyed the post and I hope you are ready for many more to come!