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Of pho and pagodas

The motorcycle man took this photo of me outside a pagoda. I wanted him to be able
to capture the serenity of the Buddha but I got this instead. 😊

Despite being a humble social development worker, I am lucky to be able to travel a bit for trainings, conferences, and some ‘me’ time. This weekend I took a van in Sihanoukville and went to the Vietnam boarder city, Ha Tien. This is my third visit to Vietnam. The first one was ten-day visit in 2002, with my sister’s family. Her husband Tony is Vietnamese and they took me on my first travel abroad to Ho Chi Minh and Da Nang, a coastal town in the middle of Vietnam. My second visit was last year, when my colleagues at the Ratanakiri NGO Network took me in an unplanned trip to the boarder city of Pleiku. We just spent the weekend there but it was fun because my friend Serey was with me.

With my RNN colleague and friend Serey Chan at Pleiku, Vietnam on April 2018.
More photos in Pleiku here https://bit.ly/2CUN9tG

In December, since the year-end crunch took over the office, my visa took a backseat and I had to do a visa run. But then, like what I did for Bangkok a few weeks ago, I decided to stay one night and explore the city. It was a good decision on my part, as it was an opportunity to get away from the stressful boom town of Sihanoukville. I was determined to have fun, but first, I have to spend less than 100USD, including travel and hotel, and second, it has to be a relaxed trip, with no compulsion to go places and do things.

Budget. The trip was not in my planned budget, so I had to keep my expenses to the minimum. Here is the breakdown: land travel from home to hotel in Ha Tien and back, 38USD; changed 20 USD to Dong for food and souvenirs (got some 70,000 VND left because I did not buy anything exept a faux jade roller; 11 USD for a hotel with a view of the river; and 10 USD for photo at the border (office covered 35 USD visa). Total, 74USD. Me time, priceless. If you are staying in Cambodia and you are from an ASEAN country like me, you would have so many inexpensive opportunities to visit border countries like Thailand, Vietnam, and Laos. Visa is free and land travel is very affordable. Flying is not so bad either. If you buy your tickets early enough, you could find budget fares to some of the key destinations to these countries.

Walking around. There are some nice touristy spots in Ha Tien, but I was not really into it. I simply wanted to take it slow and relax. I mainly walked around, and did my favorite past time when abroad, watching people. I love the laid back mood and the small town feel of this border city. Pleiku is much more developed and has its share of shopping malls and large establishments but it has its own charm. Ha Tien’s pride is the riverbanks, clean and spotted with sit down and ambulant cafes. The breeze got me in a melancholy mood and had me staring at the river half the time.

You can tell a place is safe when children play on their own in the park. I also felt safe walking around any time of day. I remember the movie Bird Box, where the presence of birds made people feel safe, because the birds react when they feel the creature is anywhere near. Anytime of day, birds chirp in Ha Tien. You wouldn’t be able to tell if the bird songs are live or recording as there are plenty of bird hotels or farms there. These are actually normal buildings, part of which people convert to bird houses (holes), where people harvest the expensive birds nest for nido soup. From a vegan point of view, this is not acceptable. Yes, bird’s nest is expensive and gives people extra income, but it’s still humans using what is theirs, and what is theirs is actually bird vomit. Yes, birds nest is made up of the bird’s solidified saliva. I sure hope the birds themselves are not being harvested. They seem to be happily going to the nests.

Some scenes I took while walking, The blue building has round holes where birds nest.

I personally feel safe as nobody gives me a second look when I travel in Asia. People in Ha Tien probably thought I’m Vietnamese, until I open my mouth. My face is so Asian generic that I have been mistaken for Khmer in Cambodia, Thai in Bangkok, Singaporean in Singapore, Northeast Indian in Bangalore, Indian in Pleiku, Indonesian in Melbourne, and Malaysian in Indonesia. As soon as I speak people would make a couple more guesses, until they say “Filipin” with a eureka smile.

Ha Tien by night. Buy Thailand shirt in Vietnam? Possible.
An off-white shirt in orange? Also possible.

Pagodas. The best way to explore Ha Tien is by renting a bicycle or a motorbike and going your own way at your own time. Despite the good roads, I opted out of driving a motorbike and got an elderly man to drive me around for a whooping 100,000! Relax, that is only about 5 USD, the same fare for a three-kilometer tuktuk ride in Sihanoukville. We went to five pagodas. That might sound a lot for a small town but the map shows at least nine. I’m sure there are a lot more outside of the downtown area. Pagodas have always had a pull on me. When I was a kid, I thought a pagoda was simply a Chinese-style building, thanks to a brand of cold-wave lotion educating me about culture. Of course later on, I realized that most of them are temples. When I travel, I always want to visit places of worship. They reveal so much about the local culture. I remember last year in Hyderabad, I visited three religious monuments in one day: the Charminar for Islam, the Birla Mandir for Hinduism, and the tallest Buddha monolith in the world on the Hussain Sagar Lake for Buddhism. It made so much sense to do so in a culturally and religiously diverse city. Only in doing so that I started to understand a bit of Hyderabad, its people, and culture.

Ha Tien’s pagodas were not earth-shakingly beautiful. But as religious places, ironically for Buddhism which is not a religion, they were special on their own. Each one had a character unique to it. And they were never out of people lighting incense sticks (I saw this was not allowed in a Buddhist gathering in the middle of Bangkok, for health and environmental reasons) and bowing back and forth in prayer. Visiting the pagodas was definitely the highlight of my Ha Tien visit.

The Chua Pu Dung Temple. Most of it is under construction
but one could already see how beautiful it would be once done.

Food. Since becoming vegan, I wanted all my trips to be food adventures. I was lucky in Bangkok when I was able to visit two branches of Veganerie and had awesome food without a worry. They had an extensive menu and really worth the visit. Given another chance, I will go back to Bangkok just for Veganerie.

My food adventure in Bangkok, December 2018. More photos of my Bangkok visit here:
https://tinyurl.com/ya3t9zza

I love Vietnamese food and since Tony is Vietnamese, I had a lot of lovely authentic Vietnamese food prepared by my sister. Back in the Philippines, my rare visits to Manila often include a dinner at Pho Hua or Pho Bac. But I agree with Tony when he says they are not authentic Vietnamese. I could still remember the taste of the vegetable pho, ban seo, spring rolls, and pandan rice cakes I had in Ho Chi Minh back in 2002.

After I put down my bag in the hotel room, I went out to eat.I wanted to find vegan pho, but nobody would serve it to me. So I went to Oasis Bar, a tiny joint being frequented by expats. The owner and guests were friendly and the food was surprisingly good. I had a baguette with hummus and roasted vegetables and green ice tea. I have learned not to stir drinks lest all the sugar blend in. I’m glad I didn’t because after I emptied the glass, a layer of sugar was still at the bottom. In Cambodia I would have said ‘skar tiktik’, which means little sugar. Most Viets I’ve met love their drinks sweet. On visits to the Philippines, Tony prepares his coffee with 1/3 condensed milk. I’m still terrified of it when I see people drinking the ultra sweet concoction. For dinner I was able to find a restaurant by the riverbanks with a staff that speaks English. I asked for vegetable noodles but made an awful mistake. I forgot to say soup. So imagine my disappointment when I received fried noodles with vegetables. It tasted good but I could still feel my vegan pho evading me. Trying again in the morning, I found 66, an eatery facing the river that served me vegan pho. Since the broth was water-based, the guy put some oil on top of it before I could stop him. He was probably worried it won’t taste good. I jazzed it up with the works, chili sauce, soy sauce, freshly squeezed lime juice, and plenty of raw leaves. It was amazing and worth the search. My visit would not have been complete without it. Walking back to the hotel, I sat by a vendor along the street selling sweet porridges. I had one with glutinous rice and red beans, topped with coconut milk. It is also one of my favorite food in Cambodia. For my lunch, I had couscous and roasted vegetable stew at Oasis Bar.

It was not much of a food adventure for me in Ha Tien, but at least I was not a hangry vegan.

After lunch, I walked a few meters to where my van was waiting at Mekong Travels and left Ha Tien with a smile on my face. For me, in Vietnam, the third time is a charm. But then four is my lucky number, so given another opportunity, I will definitely go back.

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You still know nothing ’bout me

I did say I will be braver, and would write as if I need to. This is one of those nights when I need to write. Forgive me if this offends your sensibilities. This is my most personal post yet.

I really had fun on my own tonight walking along the riverbanks of Ha Tien (Vietnam). But the night is ending on a sad note. Somebody who I have hurt so much, seemed to be on a revenge rampage and again went on a tirade, attacking who I am as a person. It started out innocently enough. When I sent an angel emoticon, they said that it had horns; then said I was never a good person; then about me with no purpose in life but my job, then about me not capable of thinking of anybody but myself; then about me not capable of loving anybody but myself. All of these in guise of jokes, with some ha-ha to make them palatable. Then more hurtful words with no more ha-has. It hurt me to my core, because they are a person who I still love and respect, despite what happened between us.

That I’m writing about this doesn’t mean how I feel for that person is already lost. It only means I need to do some self talk and finally speak out about who I am. Except that I cannot, because I don’t know myself yet. Everybody is on a journey to self discovery. How could people judge us that much, flatten our humanity into a single dimension, as if they really know us, when nobody has the capacity to really know one but oneself? It’s not easy either. Knowing oneself is an arduous journey, who knows if the destination is even reachable?

I am still trying to figure out who I am. But I don’t think that’s a crime. Everybody is a work in progress. That many people think I am a work in regress doesn’t make me so, unless I allow myself to be so. Everybody can tell me I failed in my life. But nobody can accuse me that I never tried. Because I did try. I do try evefuckingry day. I try to be more than what people think of me, I try to think of people, I try to love people. I try to love the animals and Mother Earth every single day. Sometimes I succeed, sometimes I fail. But please don’t tell me I am not capable of thinking of others or loving others but myself. That is a lie if there is ever a lie about me.

I never pretended to be a saint. That I speak out about my causes doesn’t mean I am perfect. That is just an aspect of my life. Do not equate the two. Whenever people praise me I feel uncomfortable and give a self-deprecating remark. I don’t want people to have a false idea of who I am. A few friends on social media praise me time and again. I always tell them that what they see on facebook is not who I am. I tell them if they praise me, people who know me will complain. I tell them I do not deserve any of their words because they don’t know who I am.

Despite what people see of me, or hear of me from people who love and hate me, they have no idea who I am. They haven’t had the misfortune of living my life and living in my head. How lucky they are that they don’t know me. To know me is to suffer with me, in the way that only I could suffer. If they are capable of looking at me as they think they know me now, they will be capable of really seeing me if they know who I really am. Or maybe knowing who I am is not important. Maybe the details don’t matter. Maybe people don’t need to know I suffered abuse as a child (not from family), have deep-seated self-esteem issues, thought of myself as ugly and never good enough, failed in relationships, went through the darkest of despair and fought hard to overcome all of these. Maybe we can just accept and love people as they are, despite their flaws, their present and their past; and despite who we are in their life.

I believe this is possible. Because I have been loving people this way, and many people have been loving me this way. My parents are not perfect but I never blamed them for my misfortunes or my suffering. I know they tried in the best way they can to be the best parents to me and my siblings. I love my siblings even If they don’t understand me. I know they accept me and do not love me any less every time I fail them. I love my kids even if I know they feel I fall short a lot of times. I know they love me in their fashion, which a lot of times I don’t understand. I’ve stood by my friends through thick and thin, even if we don’t like each other sometimes. I know they believe me when I say I tried, because they have seen how I tried. I’ve loved people who never loved me. It’s not their fault that they can’t love me, that is just who they are. I even love malzoists, even if I don’t like them.

As for my job being my only purpose in life, I sure hope they are not right. Even in my job I am not only an office worker. I am a mentor, coach, adviser, supporter, encourager, idea generator, number cruncher (sometimes!), disruptor, and doer. Imho, am more and I still try to be so much more than what I am, even when it hurts. I am a mother, daughter, sister, friend, colleague, volunteer, vegan and environmental activist, climate communicator, cultural creative, writer, futures student, social development worker, traveller, lover of life. I am all of these in all my good and bad facets of these. I am a warrior and a queen. My purpose in life is not only my job. In fact I am on my quest to find it. Maybe it’s about speaking out for the animals and Mother Earth. Maybe it’s about failing and trying again. Maybe my purpose in life is trying to find my purpose. I don’t know. I am yet to find out.

So thank you for listening to me here. Apologies if I made you feel uncomfortable. I think that is one of my talents, without even trying. Thank you for taking time to read this, although I feel I am writing this more for myself, than for anyone else. I will just leave this here, and will not share in social media as I always do to my other posts. If you happen to resonate with my ramblings, let me know how you feel.

And to you, if you feel this is for you, do not assume you know somebody. Whatever you think you know, see, or hear about them, you have no idea of their inner life, who is as much who they are as what you see. And to you my friend, if you feel this is for you, do not let anybody but yourself define who you are. You are only what they say you are if you accept it, and if you allow it. Stop playing small and dimming your own light. Do not let anybody make you feel like trash, or treat you like a doormat, whether you love them, or owe them. You are here and you matter, even if you are not perfect.

Lastly, thank you Maslow for asking us more than what we could deliver. I will try again in my next life. And Sting, for the song that I stole for the title of this post.


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My New Year Revolutions

Grabbed from https://www.skydiving.co.uk/event/2019-5thjanuary-opening/

It’s that time of the year when everybody tries to make a list of all that they want to do to be a better person, mostly, items refurbished from their undone list the past year. I think everybody should keep on trying no matter what. Life is a journey anyway, you win and lose, and what matters is that you tried. To quote the pop sage Miley Cyrus, ‘it’s the climb’. Ok, I’m joking about the sage part, but I admire her for being a staunch vegan.

So here I am diving in again, listing some things I want to do or be, in 2019 and beyond. Hold on to your seat because these are dizzyingly tall orders. And why not? If we aim for the stars, there is a minuscule possibility we could at least reach the clouds. But if we aim only for a feet higher than where we are, we are very likely to find ourselves kissing the ground. So why not go all out then? There is no limit for dreams, and the world has proven malleable for the audacious and hungry, and those in a state of blessed inconvenience. For such souls, the drive is much stronger, and anything beyond the current state is better. The fire of one’s passion is strong enough to shape the future, at least to a certain extent, even only in the way one views it. I guess this is the attitude one should adopt when dealing with the future, to be gung-ho about it, or else, what’s the point?

I am dividing my list of 2019 new year revolutions into four themes: advocacy, career, relationships, and self.

Advocacy. I am particularly passionate about two things, climate change and animal rights, both of which I could sum up as caring for Mother Earth. There is much to be desired in the way that I am working for these issues I care about. For animal rights, online I have Vision:Vegan World, Vision: Vegan Cambodia, which I initiated, and Vegans Philippines, of which I am admin. I also do online mentoring to anybody interested. Offline, I have much to do, especially here in Cambodia. In the Philippines, there are groups I have been joining for offline action, the Save Movement, Cube of Truth, and Vegan X Movement. For climate change, I have fairly established myself as a climate communicator, going all around the country sharing Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth slideshow, and joining the activities of The Climate Reality Project, of which I have been involved in since 2011. But in Cambodia, I have only done one talk for student leaders in 2017.

So what do I want now for my advocacies? Doing direct action is nearly impossible in Cambodia for three reasons: I am alone, I am a foreigner, and the political situation is not conducive. These should not be complete barriers in still working for animal rights and climate change. When I was working here as a volunteer last year, I did little things, leafleting, chalk art, and a couple of vegan meet-ups. Still better than nothing. Now is Sihanoukville I wanted to volunteer in an animal sanctuary, but they moved to a town two hours away, owing to the growing cost of land and rental in the city. For climate change, nothing much except for my own practices on simple living.

The situation calls for more creative approaches, and I will try to figure out what I could do in that department. I still want to volunteer at the sanctuary at least once a month. Moreover, I will try to be more personal in my approach here, less online, but more on interacting with people outside of work to create opportunities to discuss both animal rights and climate change. It will take a lot of effort on my part because I just want to be home alone after office, watch Netflix and sleep. I would have to force myself to reach out as it is not something I do by default as a semi-recluse here. If the little that I do would not be so impactful to the cause, it would be to me, and that’s what real revolutions are about. I’m only planting seeds and people would have to go through their own change.

Career. As Technical Adviser, I am the most senior  (technically, not by age) at work. But I don’t want to rest on this as a privilege even if I have earned it in the course of my career. A couple of weekends ago, we cleared the land where we will be setting up a new community center. I could choose to join for a few minutes of photos and leave, it was Sunday anyway. But I was the first one to pull out the grass. I stayed the whole time and helped as much as I could, even if it’s not really much.

Why did I do it? I want to be the best colleague I want to have. I won’t be the one who makes excuses and saves my ass. I want to be present and fully engaged. If I want to do this, then it means I have to work more efficiently and effectively, teach and learn more, and always seek meaning and work for it. I have been working on this for the past several years already. I feel that I have had tremendous growth over time, but there is always a room for improvement. If I am already on it, will it be difficult enough to be a challenge to myself? In fact the better one is at a thing, the harder it is to improve. It’s easy to give oneself a pat at the back for some job well done. It’s easy to be complacent. But to be static means to die a certain death. We have to keep on growing and getting better. This means I have to do much beyond the call of duty, take that extra mile, and flash that extra smile, even if I’m hurting. Do I have to be so hard on myself? Yes, I think so. I’ve always done well in my career, but I was never the best at anything I did. Still, mediocrity is not my best friend so I’d rather challenge myself more than be self-satisfied.

Relationships. This is where I couldn’t claim any victory at all. I failed many times in this department. My family loves me unconditionally and they have always been there for me. But the stars have unfortunately not been kind to me in reciprocating their love. I am still the ‘green sheep’ of the family, veering away from home and norms, and living life my way, not pursuing the traditional notions of success but flying as a free spirit. An old friend once described me as a nomad, and I am likely to believe that now. I do love my family, but I have some sort of social disability that I can express better typing at a computer than saying how I feel towards the people who mean most to me. This doesn’t have to go on forever though. Starting this year, I will make more effort to connect and keep in touch, profess love at every opportunity, and find ways to make them feel I truly care.

This disability goes deep in that I have no idea what to do. I currently communicate with family through Messenger. I live and work abroad. I have grown to love being alone. But I do love my family. I do love my friends. In fact I don’t know anybody I don’t love or at least like. Despite being outspoken about my advocacies and coming off as loud and angry at times, I simply don’t have a bone of hate in my body. I have dispelled hate long ago from my life. And even if I am annoyed or frustrated, I am not really angry. Have I lost the capacity for it? I hope so. Love for me is all there is. Everything else is nothing. But showing this is a totally different story, and I would have to go beyond myself to give justice to this one. Were you ever in this boat? What did you do to get back to the shore?

Self. Somebody once gave me a crown and made me feel I deserved it. I am still wearing the crown, but there are times I don’t feel like it fits. If I am to be a queen, I have to be the best version of myself. I can’t continue feeling small and dimming my own light. This is certainly the biggest challenge, since everything else I want to do is anchored on me. There are only so much in life one could do or be in control of. The self, the only thing one could be truly a master of, is usually the hardest to manage. Negative self talk, baggage of the past, fear of the future, and all such nonsense are actually real life monsters that could leave one with debilitating anxiety, depression, or both. But I’m not going to allow it. More than a queen, I am a warrior, and I have survived more than many people could handle.

Who then is the best version of myself that I am aiming to be? The healthy me. Without health, almost nothing can flourish, so I need it to be able to nurture everything else. As vegan, I will continue and strive more in my mostly whole food plant-based diet. I want to eat at least one raw meal a day, and take supplements as a good vegan should. I will exercise and be thick in the right places. I will take care about how I look, not for anyone, but for myself.

The happy me. I must have been born melancholic, or maybe I just watched too much soap opera growing up. I’m a terribly emotional and sensitive person, almost an empath. I have made great strides in the second half of last year but I need to work on it more. I need to choose to be happy and continuously work on it until it becomes a habit, until happiness becomes me.

The grateful me. I found that the more gratitude I feel, the easier it is to be happy. With gratitude everything changes almost instantly. It is a lens that allows me to see what is good, what is positive, and what good is coming if it’s not there yet. Gratitude feeds the soul like no other feeling could.

The loving me. If I have the capacity to love, I have the capacity to love myself I can see myself in others, I can feel oneness with everything in this world, or at least understand it. If I can love then I can do great things. I can stop being so self-absorbed and be a person for others.

It might have been easier just making a list of 19 things to do in 2019, but it would be about resolutions, and not revolutions. Such a weak word does not sit well with the warrior in me. What about you? What are your revolutions for 2019?


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Do you see them?

Photo Source: Valerie Weigmann Instagram

Last week I was in Bangkok, oblivious to the fact that the Ms Universe Pageant was being held and the Philippine beauty Catriona Gray was winning. I don’t care much about pageants, and I didn’t know who she is, but on my return, my social media news feeds were filled with her photos, and the one above struck me most.

Since I started working on children’s programs recently in Cambodia, I am acutely more aware of them now. And despite my long experience in social development, this is the first time I am working in an organization focused on children. I was pleasantly surprised that the new Ms Universe has done some work with children in the slums, and highlighted them in the Q&A.

But what really is the silver lining that Catriona was talking about? Do all children, especially those in the poorest communities get to see that? Do they even get a chance? I wonder how many of the children in Tondo would grow up to achieve their dreams.

While the world is oblivious to the obscure, a lot of times privilege is rewarded. The world loves achievers and winners. Those who have gone to the best schools get the best scholarships, exchange programs, conferences and free training abroad. Those who have had these opportunities achieve things. Those who achieve things win awards. Those who win awards win more awards. And they get more opportunities, better-paying jobs, great connections, even their bank loans get approved to run businesses. They get the backing they need to achieve even greater things for themselves and their communities. I’m not saying they don’t work hard for their success or don’t deserve it, most of them really do. What I mean is that this is the norm. Privilege gives birth to opportunities. Success invites more success.

Early childhood development impacts a child’s success later in life. Studies have found that 90% of brain development happens in the first five years of the child. In Cambodia, for instance, only 35% of children aged three have access to preschool. The same children who do not access such support are the ones at risk of malnutrition. Figures also show 32% of five-year old children suffer from stunting. With lackluster brain development, no access to proper nutrition and education, being at risk from domestic abuse, child labor, and even trafficking, these children’s future is bleak, to say the least.

It’s very rare to see a totally underprivileged child rise up from poverty, make something of herself, and support her family and make meaningful contributions to her community. Such remarkable cases are mostly result of sheer determination and hard work, detours and delays, lots of sweat and tears. Very seldom do they get unconditional support from the institutions that should be giving it to them.

A poor child, for example a differently-abled girl, is often forsaken by the state. Almost everybody practically thinks there is no future for her. Have you heard of such a kid being given all possible support for her to be able to achieve her full potential, however limited? Yes, maybe in a few instances. But people like her, marginalized and unwanted, sometimes even by their families, should be the ones receiving full and consistent assistance. They are the ones everybody needs to rally together for to nurture and support. This should be the norm. This is Catriona Gray’s silver lining that would make a better future possible for an at-risk child. Given ample support, they have so much to offer to the world. At least give them a chance. Without this, the poor simply becomes forgotten. And this is how individuals become invisible in the eyes of the world. Don’t let them disappear from your mind and heart.

Please support organizations working for the development of children. You can also donate to my organization here or support the crowdfunding initiative of my colleague Donna Mackenzie here.

Photo courtesy of Let Us Create Futures – Cambodia.


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unf-Air Asia

aIR aSIArant

I’m a flying person. Not that I could literally fly, but I love to travel and I fly a few times a year. Being a social development worker with limited resources, travel becomes possible for me because of low flight fares. I am able to visit family, attend training and conferences abroad, and see a sight or two because of budget carriers. I admit without them, not every Juan could fly.

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