Teach this triple truth part 2: A generous heart

This is my second post about the Green Umbrella organization and KKS primary school.  In this post, I want to reflect upon our encounter with a deeply moving and inspiring man, Venerable Sokrath Hour, a Buddhist monk and social activist.  This post will surely swerve into the dangerous terrain of exalting a man I really do not know that well.  So be it.  His story and living life story are inspiring.  I could use some inspirational leadership just now.

At the end of our stay at KKS, we purchased a “Sokrath monk doll,” produced by Putsor community members working for a social enterprise project of Green Umbrella.  Although it felt a little like buying a celebrity bobble head, we were nonetheless excited by the doll. The doll is a little keepsake of a great story.  I chided Sokrath a bit about having a doll named for him.  He laughed, and said that he originally asked if it could be just called the “monk doll.”  No such luck said the project manager.  A cute doll is just cloth, but a doll with a story has sales appeal.  Good marketing!

Sokrath with the “Sokrath doll”

We bought one, I love it.  It came with a little scroll filled with teachings from the Buddha.  I’ve been ruminating on them ever since, finding hearty food for thought.  I’ll pepper this post with a few of my favorites.  Saying that Sokrath lives by these teachings is a bit like saying that a songbird performs a commute from summer to winter.  Still my favorite:

Teach this triple truth to all:  A generous heart, kind speech, a life of service and compassion are the things which renew humanity.

– teaching of the Buddha

My understanding about Buddhism and mindfulness is about as deep as a kid’s wading pool, so I encountered Sokrath’s worldview from a beginner’s mindset, bordering on childlike naivete.  I’m not even very spiritual or religious:  when I jump up looking for a higher plane of existence, I rather quickly find myself on the other side of the parabola, landing with a thud on the very firm Earth.

However, I can be shaken by a generous heart, kind speech and deliberate action.  Sokrath shook me.  After school each day, Sokrath invited us to walk through the Putsor community with him.  He often walks, enjoying the movement, the fresh air, the sunsets, and the chance to greet people from all walks of life, and hear people’s stories.

Sokrath walking.

No one saves us but ourselves.  No one can, and no one may.  We ourselves must walk the path.

– teaching of the Buddha

I must admit I have a little bit of a foot fascination.  I always check out people’s shoes, their feet, the way they lay their pads upon the Earth.  Sokrath wears good flip-flops – as bright red as Lady Gaga’s lips.  His walk is all his own though.  His every step was deliberate and stretched out, as if savoring a visit with a long-lost friend.  He firmly planted his heel, then his weight glided onto his forefoot.  But before his toes made contact he would stretch them out in three directions – left, right and forward.  Like a yogi making space between his joints, he performed toe-mountain pose with every footfall.  And though every step was extended, maybe even slow, his pace was not.

Walking the countryside

We walked the main street, the temple, and paths through the countryside.  We walked past shopkeepers, large flatbed trucks filled with workers returning from the factory (with an eerie similarity to trucked livestock), countless children, land owners, and the forsaken people living on canal, living on nearly nothing.

Have compassion for all beings, rich and poor alike, each has their suffering.  Some suffer too much, others too little.

–  teaching of the Buddha

Sokrath listening.

Midway through one of our walks in the countryside, in a ramshackle sprawl of shacks next to the canal, we stopped at the most permanent looking of the buildings.  There were some items for sale.  Sokrath spoke to a woman, and she went into the back room, emerging with a bulk order of little chip bags, maybe 60 or 70.  For the remainder of our walk, we distributed little packets of crisps to every child we could find.  Whether dirty or clean, homeless or homed, clothed fancy, poor, or not at all, every child was noticed, beckoned and instructed to say please and thank you!

While we distributed chips and greetings to gleeful, grubby and grateful hands, Sokrath spoke to the adults.  He spoke with the same concerned tone to all – the shopkeeper, a farmer, a grandma with stained teeth.  Always a few words, a pause and a listen.  Sometimes they would laugh gently together. As people spoke their minds, Sokrath listened and acknowledged their stories.  Afterwards he shared some with us – hungry children, a half-hearted explanation for why a child did not attend school, a tale of young child’s death when the local hospital would not see him because he was “too poor.”

Mia and Porter had stayed behind exhausted after a day with the kindergartners.  When we returned to the boarding house, Sokrath produced the last two bags of chips for them.  I was moved by his compassion for every kid.  But, I was also a bit embarrassed that they needed a firmer reminder of their manners than the canal kids.  Kids are kids!

True love is born from understanding.

–  teaching of the Buddha

Sokrath acts.

Sokrath’s mission is to break the cycle of poverty.  When he first arrived in the Putsor province, he told me that he thought this little slice of Cambodia was fine, no problems.  Then he walked off the main path and saw how the poor lived.  He asked about them, he heard their stories.  Then he acted.

An idea that is developed and put into action is more important than an idea that exists only as an idea.

–  teaching of the Buddha

He started Green Umbrella in 2013, one of the rare Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs) founded and run by a Cambodian.  Through Green Umbrella, he started a school for selected K-4 kids, an English language school for all public school kids, football (soccer) teams for older kids, and a social enterprise project for community members.

His efforts are not without challenge and failure; he shared some of his frustrations with us.  One, for example, is with the community embrace of Buddhism.  Sokrath told us a few times that Buddhism is about action, not words.  But, he worried that people in the community treated the religion as a title, rather than a philosophy. According to Sokrath, this is a challenge because there is no social structure like church (or synagogue or mosque) for Buddhist people to study and practice Buddhism together, to align their actions with the teachings.  “I am a Buddhist” does not mean that “I live according to the teachings of Buddha” just as “I am a Christian” does not mean “I live by Christian values.” Too true, too true.  I saw the mirror in his words, reflecting on my own footsteps.

On one of our walks, I was marveling at how he could give so much.  “Didn’t he need time for himself?”  Amy, knowing a bit more about Buddhism than I, perhaps asked a more appropriate question,

“How do you have time to meditate?”

He answered (and I am fully paraphrasing here), “Yes, that is difficult, but necessary.  I do it in the evening before bed.  It helps me reflect on what I did well, and what I did poorly.  What else I can do?  Plus, it helps me clear my mind for a good sleep.  I try also to meditate in the morning, but usually I hear the alarm, and decide I am too tired!”  He laughs.

As someone who has recently been encountering sleeplessness, I should heed, no seek out, this prescription.

  If your compassion does not include yourself, it is incomplete.

– teaching of the Buddha

Sokrath the inspiration

In my normal American world of teaching and investment advising, I often look for the self-interest that drives behaviors and decisions.  I feel as though incentives and penalties warp the landscape so dramatically, that I doubt the motivation of anyone.  Sokrath seems to hover over this landscape, truly marching to an altruistic drumbeat.  I believe this is why he is inspiring others.

Dinner with Sam, from KKS, and other volunteers Kim and Francie

He inspired his friend from university, Sam, to join his efforts to build a school.  Sam is the director of curriculum, and the English language school for all Putsor kids. Fourteen Cambodians are working at the school; the teachers earn less than they could at public school (a Cambodian public school teacher earns around $200/month).  His organization inspires volunteers from around the world.



Sokrath inspires youth.  While we were there, we met another volunteer named Kimcheong (Kim).  Kim grew up in Northern Cambodia.  She is amazing – filled with love, good humor, and thoughtful reflection.

Kimcheong, or Kim.

When she was in middle school, she decided that she wanted more than her village school could offer.  So she studied for, and received, a scholarship to attend high school at United World College in Singapore.  She graduated last year, and has plans to attend university in the United States. Right now, she is taking a “gap year” to travel and serve in her home country.   For three months, she is volunteering at KKS to help build school programs, and to create a workshop (conference) for Cambodian youth interested in service and leadership.  Much of the reason she decided to stay at KKS was due to Sokrath.  Kim’s service was inspirational to us.  She seems to know much more than her 18 (19?) years would suggest.

Sokrath hopes to inspire more Cambodian youth to learn and give back as Kim is doing.  His vision is that KKS students will learn the skills and principles to go on to higher education.  They will want to give back, bringing new vision, ideas and businesses to Putsor.  They will help lift the community and break the cycle of poverty for many people.  Sokrath’s vision is lofty, but his path is tactile, and his smile is full of compassion.  His is leadership that I choose to be inspired by.

 Work out your own salvation.  Do not depend on others.


– teaching of the Buddha



Teach this triple truth part 1: “service and compassion”

Teach this triple truth to all:  A generous heart, kind speech, a life of service and compassion are the things which renew humanity.

– Buddhist saying, provided to me by the Venerable Sockrath Hour, buddhist monk and executive director at Green Umbrella

This post is part 1 (out of my planned 3 posts about KKS primary school).

Last week, we spent three days at at Karina Kumar School (KKS), a primary school for rural, impoverished Cambodian students.  I am tempted to describe our experience as “volunteering,” but that makes it sound as though we swooped in with our team America shirts and delivered ready-made MREs of American education.  Closer to the truth would be “we served and received, not in that order.”

This experience has been the most important and impactful one of the trip for our family.    I wish to thank the teachers, students and staff of KKS for welcoming us, involving us, learning our stories, and sharing theirs.


The staff at KKS welcoming us to their communal lunch (nap time for the kids – so civilized!).

In this post, “Service and compassion,” I will focus on the school, community, and how Green Umbrella is trying to engage social issues.  Quick warnings:  I am a teacher, I am interested in educational structures and philosophies, AND this blog is my reflective journal/toilet/puke bucket.  Thus, this post may drift into the hows and whys of school.  For all those who want to tell teachers at dinner parties to shut their mouths, (I am talking to you Gil Laas), you are warned.

First, a little background:

The Putsor community

Putsor is a rural community, about 35 km outside of Phnom Penh, Cambodia.  It has a dusty main road, shops, a big factory, and open-air plastic tabled restaurants.  It is part of a larger district of several small villages similarly composed.  The main industry is farming and factories.  There are about 4,500 families living in the area, about 35% are classified “poor” by the Cambodian government (meaning at least one person lives on less than $1/day).  Here are a few images of the village, countryside, and kids:

Sokrath, a buddhist monk, is the executive director of Green Umbrella, the Non-Governmental Organization that supports KKS.  img_9297His mission (and that of Green Umbrella) is to break the cycle of poverty in Putsor.  The primary project of Green Umbrella is the school, KKS.  Sokrath generously spent many hours introducing us to the village, its people, and answering our questions about running a school for change.  He was patient with our questions, and forthright about his challenges, successes and roadblocks.  I was struck by how similar the challenges in combating poverty are in the US and Cambodia.  A “culture of poverty” may indeed be exactly that, a culture.

There are many issues with poverty that we spoke about.  I will describe a few that I am familiar with, but highlighting issues is never as interesting as a story.  So, storytime!


Chanda is thirteen years old and in the 4th grade at KKS.  School policy is to not publish personal student information onto public websites, so I won’t post a picture or use her real name.  She is tall with long black hair, with a big, bright smile.  She is self-assured, the first student in class to put a new concept into action, and very active in classroom discussion.

On the day we arrived, Chanda had a cut-up leg from a bicycling accident, so could not participate in physical activities or games.  Duck, duck goose was particularly funny:  picture Porter being chased by a 12 year old monk in training.  Bare-feet skittering across tiles, a blur of black shirt and silky pants followed by a tempest of flowy, bright orange fabric.  A blue-eyed, blonde with chased by a brown-eyed, clean shaven head.  Their dimpled smiles matched.  The other kids shrieked in delight at the Tom and Jerry chase scene.  While the class got to play games with Mia and Porter, Chanda sat on the side and cried.  Amy sat with her, and consoled her tears.

When we heard her backstory from Sokrath, she captured out hearts.  Chanda has three other siblings, but she is the only one accepted to KKS (intentionally, the school only accepts one student per family, in order to spread opportunity).  She is older than the average 4th grader because a couple years ago, Chanda had been a student at KKS when her family decided to move to Thailand for job opportunities.  The move did not work out, and they moved back to Putsor. She missed some academic work.

Shortly after moving back, her father left the family.  Chanda’s mother was left as a single parent, with four kids, and no job.  She could no longer afford her house, so lost it.  The family was homeless.  Chanda re-enrolled in school (a little behind now due to the move away).  Sokrath heard their situation, and sought out some funding and volunteers to help build the family a new house.  Their home is pictured to the right.

Chanda’s house. Simple, but with a nice view, built by volunteers and Green Umbrella.

Chanda’s story illustrates many of the challenges facing the poor:  few skills to make a better life in their current circumstance, a lack of access to basic human needs like shelter, a lack of permanence, a single parent, and obviously very low income.

A culture of poverty

Sokrath spoke to us about many of the issues facing poor families in Putsor.  If you have worked with kids, families or communities from low socio-economic circumstances, I think you will recognize many of these issues:

  1. There is significant economic stress on families – when the next meal is questionable, schooling is secondary.  Sokrath told us that many of the impoverished kids pictured above do not go to school, but spend the day hunting snails and frogs for food.
  2. There is a problem with domestic violence.
  3. There is some problem with alcohol and drugs, although the cost made it less of a problem in Putsor.
  4. Many adults in poverty do not have jobs, and appear to have lost their motivation.  They sit in the shade and wait.  Their kids lack role models, or positive pressure to work hard.
  5. Health care is challenging, and has led many families to get over their heads in debt.  I don’t really understand the system, but I think the Cambodian government will pay for acute treatments for the poor, but not chronic ones.  For example, a child in need of surgery for an eye infection could get the surgery paid for, but not any antibiotic care.  As a result, parents are leery of entering government health care, and health problems can spin out of control.
  6. Banks and micro-financiers will loan people more money than they can afford to re-pay.  Sokrath warns people to beware the “man with the briefcase,” he may earn commissions off of every micro-loan he makes.  Many families have lost their land and homes as a result of taking out too much debt, often as a result of trying to cover health-care or housing costs.
  7. Post-secondary school may be prohibitively expensive.  I think it costs around $600/year for tuition at a local school in Phnom Pehn.  Most university classes are delivered in English, so students must be proficient readers and writers.  There are scholarships, but they are few.
  8. There are not many jobs that require post-secondary education in Putsor.   Students can work in a factory or on a farm.  Thus, parents and students do not see an obvious path to a better life.  A leader of NGO development, Irene, who stayed with us for a day put it well (I’ve tried to capture her thought):  “It may be that families are doing a smart risk/reward calculation.  They see an obvious reward for their child to work in a factory or in the field.  However, with the prohibitive cost of post-secondary school, and few visible careers needing such training, the risk of excess time studying over supporting the family is high.  With little chance of reward (few future opportunities), and a high risk of wasting all that time, families may push their kids to work rather than study.  The rationale, unfortunately, makes sense, even if it puts a harsh cap to the child’s future prospects.
  9. Many adults support their kids going to school, but do not support (i.e. require) their kids to do academic work at home.  There are many possible explanations:  parents may not understand how repeated practice reading/mathing/writing is important, parents may feel shame at not being able to read/do math themselves, parents may lack the discipline, parents may perceive that time spent working on school is a waste when college/university is prohibitively expensive.  This is a deep psychological issue that challenges the US educational system as well.
  10. Parents do not expect their kids to attain high levels of academic achievement.  There may be many reasons (similar to those above), but also there are very few Cambodian role models of rural kids making their way to higher levels of education and making a better life.
  11. Most students are willing to work at school, but do not naturally push themselves to higher academic achievement without a structure in place to support them.  I think this is natural for nearly all kids, and is why school exists!

There are local public schools that are free for kids to attend.  However, they are not structured to promote rich learning experiences.  I was able to speak to Samrong, a grade 7 public school teacher, at length.  He also worked at the boarding house where we stayed and had good familiarity with KKS.   Samrong told me that student behavior in public schools is a real impediment to learning.  With 50 or 60 students in a 3rd or 7th grade classroom, I can imagine.  Samrong thought that students attending public school were not going to get the kind of preparation needed to pursue higher levels of education.

Karina Kumar School (KKS) and the Green Umbrella project

KKS has only 82 students in grades K-4.  The aim of the school is to provide a high quality education for Putsor students.  It was a treat to play, read and speak with KKS kids. They are happy, enthusiastic, sporty, and loving. I have observed many classrooms and schools; I believe I can tell when the “bones” of a school are strong.  Within an hour of stepping foot in KKS, I knew it was such a place.  As I learned about the students’ backgrounds, I decided it had more than good bones, and I became enchanted.

KKS school grounds


The school accepts only 16 new kindergarten students per year due to budget and space constraints.  Students are not charged school fees, all costs are covered by Green Umbrella, which is funded through donation.  You may imagine student selection is a contentious issue.  Very true.  Enrollment is highly selective, with students selected based upon their economic background (family must be impoverished), physical health and mental ability.

I asked Sokrath is the acceptance process was controversial.  He wasn’t sure what I meant.

Amy clarified, “Are people angry with you?”

He laughed and nodded.  “Yes, people are very angry with me.  They ask ‘Why do you not love me?  How can you be a monk and love some people more than others?’  I try to explain, but they don’t understand.”

Sokrath was not visibly moved by this conversation, but I was.  Of course, he trains to be unmoved (at least visually) – he is a Buddhist monk!  I can imagine the parent protest.  When it’s your own kids, rationality and equity takes a back seat to self-interest.

KKS kids playing sharks and minnows

Wider impacts of Green Umbrella and the future

Sokrath started the Green Umbrella organization in 2013, with an aim of breaking the culture of poverty.  He recognizes that he will need to reach the entire community in order to accomplish his mission.  Green Umbrella is currently managing other projects, and has plans for more.  Other projects include:

  • An evening English language school for any school-aged kid from the community.  To keep costs low, they hire the best high school students as teachers, then train them.  We checked it out, probably 100-150 students were in class.
  • Two girls and boys football (soccer) teams, with kids from the entire community, coached by qualified coaches.  The boys team won their first match 15-4, much to the thrill of the community.
  • Sustainable industry.  There is an arts and crafts shop that hires community members to create products for sale.

Over time, Sokrath wishes to grow the school.  Green Umbrella has bought land to build a bigger building (did you notice the 4th grade had class outside?), and add one new grade every year.  The vision is for students to attend to KKS in the mornings, then public school in the afternoon, hopefully spreading the culture and learning of KKS further.  Eventually, they are hoping that KKS students will go to university or trade schools, and bring their skills back to Putsor, helping to bring better economics and a broader mindset back.

For more information about Green Umbrella and its mission, you can follow this link:

Green Umbrella in Cambodia

Service and compassion

I started this post out with one of the Buddhist sayings Sokrath introduced me to.  I’ve repeated it to myself many times, so I will repeat it here:

“Teach this triple truth to all, a generous heart, kind speech, a lifetime of service and compassion, are the things that renew humanity.”

One of Amy and my goals for this trip was to connect with people from many walks of life, from many different cultures.  Service at KKS allowed us a wonderful opportunity to connect.  I’m not sure I would have articulated a side effect as broadening our, and our kids’, capacity for compassion.  But, as I think about connecting with people, learning their stories, forming relationships, and I am struck by the connection to compassion.  It is easy to judge and rate cardboard cutout characters, people who seem only one- or two-dimensional.  But once you know their story, their complex lives, it is difficult to not have compassion.

The amazing staff and volunteers at Green Umbrella are living service and compassion.  Once again, I am thankful that our family was invited to be a part of this effort, it was truly inspiring.

A few more photos:

Dinner with Sam, from KKS, and other volunteers Kim and Francie
Grandmas around the world are the same. This grandma was concerned Mia was not eating
Kim (4th grade teacher) and John

Stone and secrets in Angkor Wat

On either side of me, I could feel rather than see, the great moat of water.  It’s presence beside for hundreds of steps or more, there was no telling how far it stretched away into the dark.   Uneven flagstones kept my toes engaged while my mind wandered to the mystery of how such a water trench was cut by hand into the Earth over 1000 years ago.

The air was dark and thick, laying low below a canopy of stars.  Orion lay on its side, like some great celestial sacrifice. Ahead, a darker shape with a black rectangular center rose into our horizon of stars. A gate, a doorway into the ancient temple.  The five smallish fingers holding onto mine gripped a little tighter as we stumbled together, and she leaned into me – scared? excited?  maybe just sleepy.

With hushed whispers we moved through the opening and out into a great open space. The air vibrated with a hum of jungle insects and muffled birdsong.  Scattered about the grounds were a reflection of the stars – hundreds of small earthly cell-phone lights as others sought out an early morning encounter with mystery.  The sight was strangely beautiful.

As we wandered the next kilometer or so, dawn light began to massage tree tops and a magnificent temple into existence. Elegant, soaring, lanceolate temple spires emerged into our vision from the darkness of space.  We settled into a quiet repose next to a small pond, alongside a small town of other tourists to witness the daily unveiling of Angkor Wat.

When Amy and I decided to visit Angkor Wat, a complex of ruins in the North part of Cambodia, we knew it would probably be a tourist zoo.  The attraction is actually a collection of ancient structures, a sprawling complex built by the powerful Khmer kingdom of Cambodia between 1000 and 1500 years ago. Angkor Wat is just the most well-known of the temples.  Around 500 years ago it was abandoned and the hungry Cambodian jungle began to take over.  In the late 1800s and early 1900s, explorers, French mainly, “re-discovered” the place and began clearing away the encroaching jungle.  Eventually the entire Angkor temple complex was revealed as the largest religious monument ever constructed on Earth.  As such, it has become a popular tourist destination.  Generally, Amy and I avoid such places, since crowds can really spoil a place.  Nevertheless, when in Cambodia…  We bought the three-day pass, figuring that our kids would burn out after day one, and we would burn our entrance fees.

We were wrong.  Sure, each day we all grew temple tired, but Mia, especially, was determined not to waste money.  She was going to visit temples each day, she was not going to waste money.  She does not want to make money.

We did not anticipate being captivated by the majesty of these great stone temples.  We did not hire a guide, we barely read about anything.  We just wandered, gazed and gawked. Some picture highlights of Angkor Wat:

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By 9:30 am we were ready to move on, so we tuk-tukked (I love this verb!) to Ta Prohm, the so-called “jungle temple.”  Here, the temple excavators opted to keep the encroaching jungle in place, to allow visitors to experience a unique state of deconstruction.  They selectively cleared jungle that had been creeping in on the abandoned structures for 400 years.  Plus, the management made tourists walk about a kilometer to the ruins.  As a result, the temple was free from motor noise, and the spectacle of giant Banyan trees growing over and out of crumbling stone walls and arches was spectacular.  Plus, we spent an additional hour seeking out the “dinosaur carving” in a wall that has some great internet fanfare associated.  Some creationists claim it as evidence of a young Earth, humans co-existing with dinosaurs.  Other theories seem a bit more plausible:  perhaps the ancient Khmer had found fossilized evidence for dinosaurs?  it looks a bit like a Pangolin (endangered Camobodian critter that looks like an armadillo)?

We loved Ta Prohm, here are few photos from there:


On day 2, we opted to sleep in and try to beat the crowds by visiting the temples around the lunch hour.  Our idea worked, as we walked into Angkor Thom, believed to be the capital complex of the kingdom, with hardly any other visitors.  We were able to stroll through the halls and doorways in quiet awe.  To keep the kids’ interest, I suggested we film a trailer for “Temple Run” since the video game sort of looks like this place.  I’ll attach it to the bottom of this post.  The movie-making was fun, but delayed our progress.  By the time we made it to the top where hundreds of enchanting Buddha faces are carved into the walls, the place was mobbed by selfie-sticks and chattering tourists.  We made a quick exit, then pushed the kids past their limit on a peaceful 3 km walk from one complex to another.  Meltdowns, begging for ice cream, and suggestions of child abuse ensued.  Our sweet Tuk-tuk driver with cold water was a welcome sight.

On our last day, I was inspired by our friend Lisa to go for a run.  She told us that she did the “Angkor half-marathon” a couple years ago.  Awesome!  I met our driver at 6 am, started running by 6:30.  It was lovely, but by 7:30 I had already drank my 0.5 liter of water, and was worried my sweat might short circuit my iPhone.  I bought more water, and kept going, running in the shade as much as possible.  I made it 12 km before my radiator blew. I asked a friendly ticket checker “how much farther?” He informed me “5 km further,” then laughed at my look of desperation.  He waved over a buddy (an on-duty police officer which seemed a little suspect), who motor-scooted me back for $3.  Ha!

For our final evening, we went to a more obscure temple at our tuk-tuk driver’s recommendation, and climbed to the top for sunset.  It was lovely, peaceful and reflective.

Photos from Bayon and sunset (check out the new T-shirts we just printed that day, cool!)

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We know that we are tourists, but we don’t really like it.  The crowds, frantic energy and the quest for the best selfie can kill a mood.  For our next adventures, we are going to look for nature and connection.  (Foreshadowing:  we found it, a couple days spent with a k-4 school in the rural countryside.  Those kids were insanely adorable!  We will talk about that experience another time…)

Finally, thanks for reading this long one (if you made it this far!).  Here is the trailer we made at Angkor Thom.





Kuala Lumpur – friends and food

We spent a week with friends from our overseas teaching days, the Mangelsdorfs – Max, Lisa, Lucas, Ethan and Ana.  They were sort of our inspiration for this trip.  Two years ago they took a year-long sabbatical from their work and school at International School of Kuala Lumpur to travel around the US.  We are doing the same, but in the opposite direction. We loved re-connecting with their family and with the food of Malaysia!  So many different cultures and cuisines.

Family first

When the Mangelsdorf five visited us two years ago in Bellingham, and Mia and Ana discovered they had many similar interests including reading, animals, people and couch time!  So as soon as we arrived, the girls disappeared into Ana’s room to catch up on the latest good reads.  Every time I tried to take Ana and Mia’s photo, Ana dove below my camera, so Mia/Ana photos are sparse, but here is one I caught.

After dinner that first night (home-cooked burritos, mmmm!), Ana and Mia discovered they both play flute in the band with the same style.  They are both “fake flutists.”  Apparently its a way for non-band kids to be in band.  I can’t say I am a fan of the method, but we all cracked up when we discovered another shared interest.

The next morning, Mia and Ana went with Lisa to fetch the Mangelsdorf dogs, who were being dogsat by friends.  There, the girls shared an equal squeeley love for animals.  A few days later they went to play with rescue dogs and puppies at the SPCA together, and now every day Mia is figuring out a way for us to end our trip in KL so she can adopt “Cinnamon.”  As if we would need a second dog to get Josie excited at the mailman!


The similarities finally started to break down when eating began.  Our first adventure was “nasi candor,” Indian breads and naan dipped in delicious spicy sauce for breakfast. Ana and the rest of the kids feasted, while Mia left out the “e” from feast, finally nibbling some plain naan under duress.

The next night we were joined by more overseas friends, Rita and Lyle.  We ubered downtown for some open air, street Chinese food.  The weather was a little bit hot and rainy, and traffic snarled up within a couple blocks of the restaurant.  So we all hopped out of the cars to walk the rest.  At that exact moment, the rain increased to a proper northwest drencher.  We zig-zagged from street umbrella to awning to food stall, but basically got soaked.

Upon arrival at the restaurant, the staff quickly set up overlapping umbrellas and extension cords for lights to buffer us against the growing torrent.  It was as if the air had lifted the entire Indian Ocean and was dumped it directly onto Kuala Lumpur from one of those giant water park buckets.  Then, the cracks of lightning and thunder started – great ambiance, really.

We ordered something called “chicken fish.”  None of the wait staff really spoke English, so we still don’t know what it is.  But it was delicious!  We also tried calamari, stingray, greens, beers and staying dry.  Everything was prepared to perfection, (except the staying dry part).

At this point, we re-visit Mia and Ana. They were sitting together, but having very different experiences.   Mia was hungry, so she ate some fried calamari.  Amy didn’t tell her that it was squid until later.  Very funny reaction, “you made me eat a squid??!!  But mom, you told me…”  Mia couldn’t stomach the fish.  She was nearly in tears at her lack of options, until sweet and sour chicken came to the rescue, and she chowed.  Ana ate it all, that girl likes it spicy!


For dessert, we spied a cart selling “fried durian,” allegedly an Asian delicacy.  To me, it is disgusting and smells of gym locker socks.  Perfect for a food challenge.  Max offered any kid 5 Ringgit (about $1) to eat the full piece of stinky fruit.  Porter, Lucas, Ethan, and their friend Ruby all rose to the challenge.  When we pushed Mia, she deflected our cajoling, “do you REMEMBER the last time I ate something for money?  It did NOT go well.”  She was referring to a holiday when uncle Adam convinced her to eat a huge black olive for $5.  She tried, gagged and nearly puked.  This time she was wiser, though she did take a nibble for the experience.

Our last two dinners were incredible – amazing Indian food, followed by a Fourth-of-July taste explosion:  Chinese dumplings at Din Tai Fung.  The highlight were little dumplings filled with shrimp and pork filling, called “Xiao long bao.”  Eating them was a delightful kinesthetic and gastronomic experience.  There were steps to the eating:

  1. Make the dipping sauce.  Choose-your-own-amounts of soy sauce, rice vinegar, chili, and pickled ginger, as spicy as desired.
  2. Scoop a bit of sauce into your spoon.
  3. Plop a steaming hot dumpling into the sauce in spoon.
  4. Pierce the dumpling a couple times with a chopstick, and press down gently to allow the piping hot juices from the pork/shrimp mix to form a slurry of, my god, can you smell it yet?
  5. Wait to cool a bit.
  6. Suck that dollop of goodness into your mouth.  Though I’ve said this before about other foods, it was one of the greatest taste sensations I’ve experienced. I think the restaurant is a global chain actually, and just opened a location in Seattle.  Yum! Even Mia liked the dumplings, without sauce of course.

If you are counting, you might notice that Mia has now tried squid, Chinese dumplings, and last night she put a bit of Cambodian curry on her rice.  She may not appear the adventuresome type as far as food goes, but she is doing it. Amy and I are very proud of her stepping out of her comfort zone on this trip.

We ended our Malaysia visit to a local children’s hospital.   The hospital is specifically for kids with leukemia or other blood related cancers.  Max and Lisa regularly bring their students and kids to the hospital to play with kids and give them a different experience.  The hospital is very popular with families, as the beds and rooms are big enough for several people to stay, and the care is very good.   In every room, on nearly every bed, collections of parents, siblings and grandparents gathered around their child in treatment.  People slept, laughed, ate, and played games, anything to make a foreign, scary place seem loving and nurturing.

We had bought some coloring books and balloons, and just sat down to draw with kids, or played balloon catch.  I was really impressed by Lucas and Ana’s comfort with kids and families.  It took me a little longer to get comfortable, but once I joined with Ana and Mia at a 5-year old girl’s bed, she and mom just crawled their way into my heart.  Mom was very open about her 5-year old’s illness, they found out she had leukemia only one month ago.  Now they were in KL for several months of chemo treatments.  The girl loved princesses, and seemed to enjoy coloring with Mia/Ana.  Porter settled into a game of balloon catch with another ten-year-old, while Max walked about adding little bits of fun to many kids .  It was a lovely ribbon to a marvelous gift of a week.  Thanks for the great hospitality Mangelsdorfs!

Here is a gallery of a few more photos:

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Asian medical care, air travel and the kindness of strangers

Last week we left Lombok, Indonesia (and a great travel adventure with the Grays) to head to Kuala Lampur, Malaysia.  It was a three-hour international flight on “Air Asia.”  Guess how much the flight was?  About $100 per ticket!  The flight itself was fine, but we were worried about Porter.

Porter in his “uniform,” with an earache (actually in Malaysia here)
The day before we flew out Porter developed a painful earache, and the local doctor was not in. So, we did some quick “internet-doctor-diagnosis,” and figured it was swimmer’s ear.  We read that Porter maybe should not fly – extreme pain and the possibility of a burst eardrum were both mentioned by http://www.youwithoutanymedicaltrainingcandecidewhatyourkidhasandifitisserious.com.  We decided to go for it, because $100 tickets are a bargain, but probably not transferable.



 We arrived at the airport, and asked if they had a chemist where we could buy some eardrops. We were swept to a table with two ladies in headscarves (Lombok is a muslim country). The two ladies eagerly plopped Porter onto a table and had a look at his ear.  They conferred in a mix of Indonesian and giggles.  They showed us a medication, antibiotic eardrops, and a quick Google search confirmed they were appropriate for swimmer’s ear.  They wouldn’t accept any money and had packets of snacks for everyone in the family to munch on while we waited.  They were lovely, and we felt well cared for.


Ten minutes later we were off through the labyrinth of security, check-in, re-security, and immigration.  Air Asia has a very clever business plan:  sell a very cheap ticket, but charge for everything else.  Even water.  When you reach the gate, they have you pass through a third security check point (no liquids allowed) to wait to board the plane.  The last waiting room has no food or water, so basically you develop a thirst for on-board products.

The flight was uneventful.  As we descended towards Kuala Lampur, I was worried about Porter’s ear.  We read that chewing gum and swallowing would help.  So, I approached a flight attendant to ask for a cup of water.

“Could I have some water for my son with ear infection who needs to swallow during landing?”  I asked.

“Yes, but you need to pay.” he replied.

“How much?”  I queried, slightly annoyed.

“One dollar.”  I offered him a $20 bill.  “No change.”

I offered him a 50,000 Rupiah bill (about $4).   “Only US money.”

I just stood there and repeated my original request.  He relented, and I got a cup of water. Luckily, the magic of those eardrops, chewing gum and a video game all contributed to a painfree landing.

A few days later, Amy took Porter to our friends’ Malaysian doctor – Dr. Perkosh.  Amy reported “nicest doctor visit ever.”  He was seated in the waiting room, ready to greet his patients.  He looked at Porter’s ear, prescribed meds, looked at Amy’s ear and a skin thing on Mia.  Amy said that he was playful, patient, engaged and never looked at a computer once.  He also allowed them to have a “multiple symptom”, multiple person visit.   Appointment total with meds about $20.

I always feel fortunate when we are in need, and and run into the kindness of strangers.  I am left to wonder, do I treat strangers so well?  I think I am considerate, but do I take the time to really encounter, and make a brief but meaningful relationship with them?  Things to ponder on the road…


Seasons greetings!

Happy holidays from Indonesia –

This post is in lieu of the normal holiday letter sent by I.  Since we cannot be with mom/Grandma Helen on this holiday, this post is also our Christmas gift to her.  It is kind of a “re-gift”, since it is almost the same gift she gave us kids a few years ago.

The original gift was called An Open Letter to my Children on Proper Pronoun Usage.  It was a two-page typed letter given to myself, my brother and sister.  On the front was a detailed lecture about proper pronoun usage. My sister, brother and me all laughed as we read aloud the various “rules.” On the back of the letter were copy-and-pasted examples from each kids’ writing that exhibited their incorrect use of pronouns.

This blog post is a holiday letter, and a sort of “Where’s Waldo” of grammar. As mom reads this, probably aloud to Mike, he and her are going to cringe and gasp as they stumble across incorrect pronouns and terrible grammar.  That is funny to Amy and I!  But it really won’t be that funny to mom, because this post is published to the entire world, and so reflects on she as a parent.  Growing up, grammar was one of the few rules in our house that earned admonishment when broken.

In the comments, please state your favorite poor use of grammar in this post, and feel free to stand on your own little soapbox. If I’ve done my writing correctly, I think you will find many examples to choose from.  Me and mom will compare our counts of poor grammar as well.

On to the letter:

fam-on-bingin-dec19Me, Amy, Mia & Porter are on an extended adventure – four months traveling through Southeast Asia!  I am still in shock, and feel incredibly fortunate to have a family willing and excited to make such a trip happen.  Amy and me wanted to mix up our family patterns, explore new cultures, and adventure together.  So far, so good!

We are currently traveling with another family from Bellingham: the Gray/LaCroix family (Darrell, Renee, Maya and Willow).  The kids are having a blast together; they put up with 1000-stair climbs, temple contemplations, and sweaty air.  When given the chance to play in salt or fresh water, each only need a bit of encouragement to don their suits, like “Go,” or “Water,” or “It’s time to get dressed for going on another temple walk.”

Chesbroughs, Grays a McKenney and a LaCroix atop Ulu Watu

All the McChezennies also had some individual goals for this trip:


Amy walking the world


Amy wants to explore the culture, deepen her awareness, and practice body healing through massage, meditation and yoga.  Some of these pursuits is easier than others.  Over the last week, she has had a delicious massage, and went to yoga twice on the beach.  But today she has a head cold, yesterday she had a migraine, and sleep?  If you know Amy, you may have guessed the answer to that question – the Indonesian word for “no” – na. You can put the traveler in a new country, but you can’t make new country in the traveler.





I want to connect with people and culture outside of my own tribe, explore new natural areas, and go on adventures.  Mornings tend to be adventure time – a hike or run down some unknown road, often ending in some Indiana Jones like decaying structure.  Two days ago, I ran down about a hundred stone steps into a close walled ravine.  The volcanic rock was thick and sturdy, covered by a  soft body hair of mosses and ferns, sort of like my chest that Porter keeps asking me about – “Dad, do you like having chest hair?”  “Don’t you think you should shave it?”

Another:  A few afternoons ago we scrambled up several hundred stone steps to a hilltop temple of black brick.  The only residents was a monkey family.  On the way home, we encountered a festival happening in a small village.  The priest invited us in, and told us about the ceremony.  He spoke decent English, and told us that we were either:  in the middle of a ceremony that occurs only once every 100 years, or in the middle of a ceremony that we should donate 100,000 Rupiah to (about $8).  Irregardless of which was correct, I made the donation.


Mia wants to be open to new experiences and connects with people from different cultures.  She enjoys, especially the shopping and haggling.  Two days ago, we all stopped at an art market to buy Christmas gifts for our exchange.  Mia haggled a 100,000 Rupiah salt-and-pepper shaker down to 30,000.  (My best?  65,000 to 40,000).  She is loving the travel with her close friends Maya and Willow, and she is doing a pretty good job eating food.  At least if you consider chicken to be a protein, carbohydrate, fat, dairy, vitamin and a mineral.



Porter wants to wear silky pants and no shoes, see new sights, eat new weird foods, and ride motor scooters.  Basically, he wants to adventure.  For every page Mia reads, he wants to take a barefeet step.  He knows what he wants.  Last night for dinner, he insisted on eating “Fish croquette balls.”  I thought he was crazy.  But, he ordered them and proclaimed their delicious.  At haggling, Porter’s is also better than my efforts – his best is 70,000 down to 40,000.  Also, he was psyched to motorbike for the first time.  Yay!

Poe gets in the pool before breakfast, after breakfast, before activity, after activity, before dinner and after dinner.  Yay swimming!

Porter also got to try scooter biking on Christmas, which was a little terrifying for him and I:

Youtube video of Porter scooter biking in Lombok

Don’t forget to add a comment about your favorite bit of Bad Grammar for our Good Grandma!

Thanks for reading, and here is hoping youall have a wonderful holiday and new year!


John, Amy, Mia and Poe



Balinese fire dance – Ulu Watu


The Temple of Ulu Watu

Besides incredible natural beauty, Bali devotes many expanses of time and space to worship.  A few days ago, we walked through one, called Ulu Watu on the Southern tip of the island.  It is a very spiritual place for the Balinese people (mostly Hindu).  The temple itself is a great expanse of structures, walkways and altars all set atop a breath-taking cliff overlooking the Indian Ocean.

Everything was built right to the edge of great 1000 foot cliffs that dropped into pounding surf.  And though the architecture was grand, there was also a distinct lean to the guardrails as erosion slowly sloughs the edges into the waves below.  Every structure was coated in moss, lichen and green grinding away at the carvings.  The temple seemed to me a reminder that humans are wonderfully capable, but our lives will not last forever.  Here is a quick selection of Ulu Watu images.

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Komang (shown in several pictures) was our guide, friend, assistant, translator, maker of all things to happen, and driver.  He is a kind man, father of two, Hindu, and married to a muslim woman Ida (who was the kind-hearted caretaker of the home we stayed in on Bingin Beach).

A Balinese fire dance

After touring the temple, we decided to watch the evening’s entertainment – a dance performance depicting four of the many scenes of the Eastern mythological tale, “the Ramayana.”  It will be impossible for me to describe the dance, but I’ll give you a little feel, and some photos.  Also, I edited a bunch of semi-decent/junky cell phone video down to about a 4 1/2 minute video of the performance.  I’ll post the Youtube URL at the bottom of this post.

Quick description of the dance:  The music of the dance was an unaccompanied “choir” of 70 men, all bare-chested in matching sarongs.  Several characters in mask or heavy make-up and elaborate costumes entered the stage to show the hero (Rama) lose his beautiful wife (Sita) to a demon king (Ramanha).  The monkey-god Hanuman finally helps Rama get Sita back.  Some photos:

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How did our kids do watching an hour long dance with only Indonesian language and song?

Everything about this should have gone wrong.  The dance started at 6 pm, we hadn’t yet eaten dinner, it was a dance performance, and was not in English.  All parents out there know that I just stated about 4 sure-fire precursors of a ragged kid reaction.

However, after reading a difficult-to-decipher English translation of the story, I gave the kids a brief summary.  They were really into it, kept asking what point of the story we were in, and which character was which.  At the end of the show, they ran up to different characters wanting pictures, and knew who was who.

Back in the car, the kids chattered about the show, and asked more questions about what was happening.  Amy’s jaw kind of went “slack” since she hadn’t read the show notes, basically didn’t understand any of the story line, and just took it in “like poetry.”  Pretty much the same thing that happens when we pause to look at a historical sign.  I suggest that she might learn more by reading rather than relying on diffusion…

There was also some good comic relief as about halfway through the performance, a real monkey jumped onto the banister at the back of the amphitheater.  The monkey started trying to snag people’s snacks, sunglasses, purses, whatever.  As the monkey ran around the perimeter, the audience burst into a chaotic stadium wave, collapsing inward away from the pesky primate.  The performers continued singing and dancing, but their eyes and smiles let us know that this was unplanned.  Finally guards chased the critter out right before the monkey-god, Hanuman appeared.  Good dramatic choreography!

Our kids did great.   They enjoyed the art, the story and the experience of being in a large spectating crowd with people from all around the world.  When the narrator called out, “Who’s from ______?” China, Australia and Indonesia were the top bills.  Americans in Bali are the minority tourist.

Here is a link to the YouTube video of the dance:

Balinese Fire Dance

Cheeseburgers out.

rain and sun in Bali

Our first 24 hours in Bali have been a lesson in opposites.  The first night we arrived ina “big rain” that seems like the sun had already set.  Here is Mia walking down the corridor towards our guesthouse.  

Amy on her way down the steps.

Ida and Komang (married couple) are our kind and funny hosts.  They showed us the rooms; we talked about the weather and kids for a bit. We quickly learned that Ida is Muslim and Komang is Hindu.  The owner of the place lives in Brazil and is Buddhist (sorry no pic yet).

We could barely keep our eyes open, but we dragged ourselves to a beachside dinner of chicken satay and fried rice.  

As we waited for food, everyone fell asleep on lounge couches!  No pic, though it was probably funny looking.  Food arrived and we perked up – delicious!  Back to our room, neither Amy or I slept well through the pounding rain.

The rain lasted all night, and we all crawled out of bed at first light, still tired and cranky.

Then the sun came out, and behold, so did our attitudes!  Our room has a beautiful view looking over the ocean.  

Sun and waves through the day with a predictable ending – our northwest amphibian skin turned to cooked-crab red.  Oops, bad parents.  Are there actually good parents out there for skin management?

The Grays just arrived last night, everyone is happy to be hanging with friends. It may be a few days before our next post, Wi-fi is spotty here.  Cheeseburgers in asia out to go on sunset beach walk!

We are off

Shoes start clean, and so do attitudes.  Everyone was excited in Los Angeles:

After our 15-hour plane ride with some intensely awesome screen time, and arrival in Hong Kong at midnight bellingham time (4pm Hong Kong) Mia’s report:

Mia: aaaarrggggghhh and blllleeeah 

Porter:  “whoa this is scary,” and “OMG, we are going on a four month trip to Southeast Asia.  This is crazy, this is scary.”

Mia and Poe next to a display in Hong Kong airport.

Once we settled in, we had the “best Chinese dinner ever.” Which was good since we were in china and it cost about $100 for a shared set of appetizers.  

Next stop, Bali!