It’s been a week since I came back from a trip that brought me to five cities in Southeast Asia—Saigon, Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, Yangon and Chiang Mai. I had planned to fly to either Hanoi or Vientiane for the last leg of my month-long vacation, but had to cut short my trip because of, you guessed it, COVID-19!
When I learned about President Duterte’s announcement on March 12 of the impending lockdown of Metro Manila, I panicked because I did not want to get stuck indefinitely abroad. I hurriedly booked the next flight to Manila on March 14 and was back home on the eve of the first day of the Metro-wide quarantine.
But this article is not about COVID-19. It is about what I brought back with me to Manila after visiting our Southeast Asian neighbors for almost a month—souvenirs, if you may. For us Filipinos, a souvenir is something that we buy during our travels to remind us of our experiences. It comes from the French verb ‘souvenir’, which means ‘to recall’ or ‘to have in one’s memory’. Souvenir, therefore, refers to not only a physical thing (i.e., a memento) but also to something intangible (i.e., a memory, a remembrance, a recollection).
I did buy a few paintings, mostly rural scenes, from Phnom Penh and Yangon, since I need to populate the walls of my newly-renovated condo. These will go well with the egg-shell paintings of Vietnamese rice fields that I bought from Hanoi more than a decade ago. These will serve to remind me of not only of the beautiful landscapes of our neighboring countries in Indochina, but also of the friendly and knowledgeable ladies that sold me these paintings in Central Market in Phnom Penh and Bogyoke Aung San Market in Yangon.
More valuable than the paintings, T-shirts, key chains and refrigerator magnets, though, are my actual experiences and the stories of people that I encountered, albeit briefly, during my trip. Through brief conversations, I picked up interesting bits and pieces not only about the cities that I visited but also a little something about these individual persons’ lives.
Riding from the back of Vince’s motorbike, I experienced the thrill of traversing Saigon’s boulevards and side streets, even as I witnessed the lives of locals in old apartment buildings somewhere in District 3.
Vince shared a little bit of his life as an English major and as a part-time tour guide, even as we enjoyed Vietnamese pancake, Vietnamese pizza, Obama noodles, Vietnamese ice cream, sugarcane juice and ‘happy water’ (aka Vietnamese moonshine). He also taught me how to unfold a lotus when we passed by the city’s flower market.
As the lone participant of the Phnom Penh Evening Food Tour, I was fortunate to get some cooking tips from Sophany, a Cambodian social worker/businesswoman/tour guide, who introduced me to the nuances of Khmer cuisine while we feasted on (and deconstructed) the delicious Kari Grahom and the exotic Prahok K’tih. She was generous too with her stories about her experiences in Manila, including a visit to Smokey Mountain, when she underwent some training here as a social worker.
One can’t help but be infected by the positive disposition of Ramon, a person with disability (PWD), who sold books to tourists (rather than beg) at the entrance of Wat Phnom to support himself. He was thrilled, as I was, when we learned that we shared the same name. “The Killing Fields,” which I bought from him, gave me a glimpse of what the Cambodian people had to endure under the Khmer Rouge.
In Siem Reap, I met two gentlemen who both underwent a career shift that led them to the hospitality industry. Kiss, our articulate and experienced Angkor Wat tour guide, left his previous job as a high school teacher since it did not pay as well as being a freelance tour guide. Kevin, who drove me from Angkor Aurora Hotel to the airport, left the family business to work as a frontliner in a hotel chain in Siem Reap.
In Yangon, I was fortunate to have spent a day with La Salle Brothers Noel Lol FSC and Joseph Aung FSC, who gave me a glimpse of their lives running an English teaching center in Yangon, and who welcomed me to the Brothers’ house by the lake and to the community within the compound of St. Mary’s Cathedral.
They also intimated their plan of setting up a corporation that will allow them to run a school once again, several decades after the military junta confiscated the Brothers’ school—reputedly one of the best in Burma then—in the turbulent 1960s.
I encountered Chan, a food server in Hotel Balmi, who lent me his Lonely Planet book so that I could learn more about the history of Myanmar (formerly Burma). Having just enrolled in an entrepreneurship course in a local university, he said that he is excited about doing his own business plan and is kept awake at night because of all of the business ideas in his mind.
I also met the somewhat serious Myo, who expertly explained the stories behind the colonial buildings in central Yangon; who brought me to the crowded Yangon circular train to witness first-hand how commuting and commerce can exist in old rickety trains that could break down anytime; and who impressed me with his deep knowledge of Buddhism, as well as Burmese history, as he guided me through the iconic Shwedagon Pagoda.
In Chiang Mai, what stood out was the market visit and cooking class conducted by Thai Akha Kitchen. Our teacher Martha, who happened to be younger than all 10 of us who attended her class, shared how she grew up as an orphan in Akha. After spending several years in the orphanage, she took the opportunity to work in Thai Akha Kitchen, learned English in five months, and became articulate enough to be our tour guide and teacher.
There were other interesting stories shared by other locals I encountered and some of my fellow travelers, but these could not anymore fit in this article. Together, these stories and experiences constitute a virtual mosaic in my mind—a collective portrait of individuals with common struggles and dreams—more valuable than any of the beautiful paintings or the intricately-woven silk scarves that I bought during my abbreviated Indochina tour.
Raymund B. Habaradas is a Full Professor at the Management and Organization Department of the Ramon V. del Rosario College of Business of De La Salle University (DLSU), where he teaches Methods of Research, Management Action Research, and Qualitative Research. He is also a Governor of the Philippine Academy of Management (PAoM), and the holder of the Ambassador Ramon V. del Rosario Chair of Entrepreneurship. He welcomes comments at [email protected]
The views expressed above are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the position of DLSU, its faculty, and its administrators.