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31 Oct 2010

Sleepy Sam

Some things never change .....

He says it's because of the 4am wake up call we keep having but I'm not convinced!

Water Management

The rainy season is drawing to a close and the country is preparing for the big water festival to mark its end in a couple of weeks’ time.  The management of water here is a contrast to the ‘on tap’ ways that we’re used to in the UK.  I thought I’d share some thoughts on how things work here.

For starters the main source of water is the rain that falls, and all over the country you will see these giant clay pots positioned under pipes draining water from the roofs of houses.  This is to collect all the water that falls for use in the future.  Most Cambodians drink, cook and wash directly from these, as we observed on our homestay.  The health implications of this should be obvious.

Water collection pots - note corregated iron used to direct water into active pot

In our house, which is on the first floor, the next step is getting some of this water pumped up into a storage tank which sits high above our roof in order to provide the necessary pressure required to power taps.

Our towering tank

We used to have a shower which was pulling water directly from this storage tank.  That was until Gilly somehow managed to snap the metal tap, here is the carnage that resulted.  When it happened we were left with a gushing hole in the wall which one of us needed to plug while the other went to get help from the indifferent landlady...

That hole on the right used to be a solid piece of metal, now snapped off from the wall

The sorry state of our shower

The problem was temporarily solved when we found the master tap to stop the supply of water to the shower.  However, this also meant that our sink was now dry and the toilet didn’t flush.  The landlord came back and suggested that fixing the shower would be a big job but that, if we were happy to live without a shower, he could just plug the hole to get the other things working again.  We accepted this kind offer and our shower tap now looks like this.

Hole plugged, shower no more...

The result of losing our shower means that we now take what are referred to as ‘bucket showers’.  This involves scooping water from a massive storage vat in the bathroom and sloshing it over yourself.  As this water is kept indoors (refilled from the storage tank outside) it is remarkably cool and, when it’s a hot day, very refreshing.  This same tank and bucket can be used to flush the toilet so we have a backup if we ever lose the flush function again in the future.

Water vat, and little green bucket with handle

Another new device to me is the affectionately named ‘bum gun’.  Those familiar with the French bidet system will quickly understand the benefits of high pressure water near to the toilet.  Other volunteers, who shall remain nameless, swear by the gun, even going as far as describing the experience as mildly pleasurable.

 Draw, aim, fire!

You’ll be pleased to hear that we aren’t drinking this untreated water but the process for making water that is safe to drink is slightly more complex than back in the UK where the worst you have to worry about is an occasional taste of chlorine.  Option one is the purchase of 20 litre barrels of drinking water.  After an initial $4 deposit on the barrel these cost $1 a time but this does require going out to collect it and getting it home on the motorbike.  This is a potentially expensive way of sourcing drinking water on the VSO allowance.

Pure water, all 20 litres of it

Option two is the boil and filter method.  This involves boiling a big pan of water, letting it cool and then filtering it through what can only be described as a large clay plant pot.  This is then collected in a plastic bin before it can be tapped off for drinking, cleaning vegetables from the market and brushing teeth, all things you’d rather not do with the ‘raw’ water from the big tank.

 Inside the water filter

And outside

If this all sounds a big like slumming it then you’ll be happy to hear that we do have a fridge, a relative luxury like the flushing toilet, and that this is used to keep our water cool which is much nicer to drink when it gets really hot.  Strangely the last couple of days could almost be described as cold and I’ve been wearing jeans and, last night, a fleece!  Right now the fridge is out of action since the power went down a couple of hours ago but luckily the cold weather means we’re not desperate for cold water or the fan.

Nice colour co-ordinated water holders

On the subject of cold water, as Gilly mentioned in her last post, we appear to have moved in the residence of Baron Ice Today, daily supplier of oversized ice cubes to the entire province.  They are used in cool boxes everywhere to keep beers, water and soft drinks cold for customers in all manner of cafes and restaurants.  These giant ice cubes are cut off an even bigger slab every morning at 4am using a very loud electric rotating blade – right outside our bedroom window!  This process lasts about an hour and is currently damaging my mental health.  We have raised the issue once and he kindly gave us one morning off before he was back at it again today.  We’re currently discussing how we politely say we never want to hear the noise again without causing a raucous.  Wish us luck!

30 Oct 2010

Our new Kratie home

On Saturday 23rd October we drove the four hours from Phnom Penh to Kratie to make the long awaited move into our new house.
Here's our mini-van which took me and Sam to Kratie and then carried on to Stung Treng with Jan, Thea and Ingran.

2 motorbikes, 2 push bikes and 5 peoples' luggage...

After spending all day cleaning and unpacking, we celebrated our first night in our very own house with some beer on our balcony.

And here's the inside of our house:

the living room

and again from a different angle

Our bedroom

Dining room


Bathroom (I knocked the shower tap off the wall so we now only have a bucket shower, oops!)

Spare bedroom 1

Spare bedroom 2

Visitors are very welcome although, as you can see, we haven't got any mattresses for our spare beds so do give us some warning! We're really happy with the house and think it's beautiful so can everyone please cross your fingers that the noise of our landlord cutting up ice with an electric saw every morning at 4am which last an hour stops really soon or else we'll have to move somewhere else which would be a real shame.

Prey Speu

Prey Speu, near the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh

Jo sent me this article published in last week's Guardian newspaper. Read it here.

Home (not so!) Alone

My experience of homestay...

...and Sam's.

As 80% of Cambodia’s population live in the countryside it is important for us to have some experience of what that lifestyle entails. To this end VSO have forged a link with a village in Kampong Cham province where all new volunteers spend a night with a host family a.k.a. ‘Homestay’. Ours started at 8.30am on a Sunday when VSO picked us up in a mini van and drove us along an amazingly bumpy road to a village about an hour outside of Kampong Cham town. We all nervously and expectantly met the commune leaders and were then handed over to our families.

The mum in our family was about 60 and led the way across the road to a very posh looking house on stilts with a massive garden but then we kept walking behind the house, through a small forest of different fruit trees (I suppose it could have been an orchard rather than a forest...) and along the river, side stepping a couple of cows and chickens to our family home for the night.

Feeding time for the cows

There were about four houses in a row and lots of people and animals milling around outside. It was never made clear to us exactly who was part of the family but everyone was very friendly and we got to practise our Kmai. It was good to be the two of us together as we’ve had two different teachers so know different words/phrases. It seemed that we were generally understood and when one of us couldn’t understand, normally the other one could so it worked very well.

This was our house for the night.

Here's some of our family although I'm pretty sure the guy on the right is not actually a member of the family!

The first thing that happened while sitting and chatting to everyone was a couple of mangos were presented to us with a knife and some salt and chilli to go with them. You’ll all be pleased to hear I politely ate the mango though I declined the salt/chilli dip. Luckily they eat the mangos here before they are ripe so it didn’t really taste too much like a mango!

Look how happy I am eating my mango! 'Toothy' is on my right facing the camera.

We then ate lunch (they must have been mind-readers as they served up my favourite, Beef & Ginger!) and were ushered upstairs to the living room area, given a mat to lie on a left alone to have our afternoon nap. I slept brilliantly, especially as it started to pour so it was nice and cool. Sam, for once, was unable to sleep as he said he was being attacked continuously by mosquitoes! Sam’s little face does actually fill up with fear whenever he sees a mosquito...

Sleeping tight and hoping the 'bed mosquitoes' don't bite!

After the rains and all the cows have been brought home...

After more chatting to various families and helping some of the students practise English we went back into the house to have quick showers before dinner. The bathroom was a separate room outside and round the side of the house. The mum had been trying to get Sam to have a shower since about 3 o’clock that afternoon. It wasn’t clear if it was because she thought he smelled or because they had been told foreigners like to wash all the time. We then had dinner and chatted to some other people who just seemed to wander in and out of each other’s houses which is quite nice.

Sam busting out his Kmai phrases with the ladies, note the socks and flip flops look...

During dinner we got better acquainted with one of the older villagers, a 74-year-old lady with no teeth. She had declined our offer of some mango earlier on the grounds that her dental setup would be prohibitive to chewing. Sam promptly nicknamed her ‘Toothy’ for this reason. She was a real laugh and we learned a lot about her, her family (mostly dead now) and asked if she wanted to hear some music with Khmer lyrics. She was very enthusiastic and had no hesitation in following Sam up to the main room of the house (she doesn’t live there though) as he went to fetch the iPod and speakers. We sat for a while listening to the band Dengue Fever which Dan gave to Sam before he left. Toothy and another lady really enjoyed it, even singing along to a couple of the tracks which were covers of 1960s Cambodian rock songs. Toothy was our favourite villager and she had a great habit of repeating everything we said in Khmer to all the other villagers while laughing e.g. “he just said he comes from England, ha ha ha”.

'Toothy', still cycling at 74 (and she's in the other picture above on the right).

Then it was time for bed. We had been prepared for bedtime by a volunteer who had briefed us before our homestay, managing our expectations very adeptly so that we were more than prepared for what lay ahead. We were sleeping on a thin woven mat on the wooden floor with some pillows and a mosquito net. A short distance away on a mattress were the mother and father of the house under their mosquito net – it was all very cosy. The daughter slept in another room and one of the sons slept downstairs on the kitchen table/bed. We were in bed by 8pm! The front door was locked and bolted which was rather annoying as the toilet was outside and down the stairs. I had stopped drinking water at about 6pm in preparation for this.

The mat on the floor from earlier now with (honeymoon suite) mosquito net.

We were woken at various points throughout the night by: the father coughing his guts up and spitting on the floor; the father going outside for a cigarette; one or both of them frequently weeing into a metal bowl next to their bed; and a cockerel who though 2.30am was morning time. The first time the father got up, Sam used to opportunity of the open door to make a dash to the loo. When he came back I asked the time, thinking it must be nearly morning – it was only 11.30pm! Another choice moment in the night was getting text from Dave, one of our group staying in another house in the village. His house had a similar potty in the main room set up but we had obviously been spared the number twos as his text read: "There's someone poo'ing in my room and it's not me". We should have counted ourselves lucky!

After what felt like a very long night the family got up at 5am and we dosed for a bit before getting up at 6am. I do have to admit my neck and back were hurting a bit from spending eight hours lying on the floor!

After we’d eaten some noodles for breakfast we suggested to the son that maybe we could all go for a wander around the village. This was met by protests that everywhere was far too far to walk to, however he could take us on his moto. As we didn’t have our helmets we said we couldn’t go on the bike but how about a walk along the river. He still declined this suggestion on grounds that we weren’t quite clear on but thought perhaps it was due to the heavy rain the day before. After re – phrasing our ‘├žan we go for a walk’ sentence many times he finally understood and asked if we wanted to go for a ‘da laying’ (literally translated as ‘play walk’ i.e. a stroll or wander). We eagerly accepted and off we wandered along the river, threw the orchard and onto the road. As we walked along everyone shouted out in acknowledgement of our ‘da laying’ and I think we both felt like we had learned a new and very useful word. During our wander we got to see the growing of many Cambodian fruits and took some pictures of them.

A fruit we now know the Kmai name for but not the English so we still don't know what it is!

Cow scratching head, Sam was more impressed by this than I was.

We were collected by VSO again at 8.30am on the Monday and were driven back to our hotel in Kampong Cham to share are varied and interesting stories of our homestays. Having been a little apprehensive following our briefing, we really enjoyed the experience and it was a huge eye-opener in terms of the differences in lifestyle between the villages and towns in Cambodia. But also the even greater disparity between rural life in a developing country compared to what we’re used to in London. For example, the entire commune of around 13,000 people do not have access to any form of healthcare facilities unless they can make their way to the town. No doubt this is the case in many places here and one of the reasons VSO have a strong focus on health issues in Cambodia.

Phnom Mannu Proh and Mannu Sray

In our last week in Kampong Cham, me, Paul and Ingran felt the need to do a bit of sight seeing and decided to cycle for about an hour to visit the Man (Mannu Proh) and Woman ~(Mannu Sray) Hills. The story of the hills goes something like this: A woman gave birth to a son but had to send him away from the village (not sure why). He returned to the village years later as a young man and fell in love with the most beautiful woman in the village (which unfortunately turned out to be his mum). In order to save everyone’s face (very important) the woman decided to set a challenge for the young man (her son). If the men in the village could build a higher hill than the women in the village by sun rise, she would marry him. But of course, because women are so clever, they build a massive fire than turned the sky red and orange and made the men think it was sunrise so they laid down their tools. The women carried on building their hill and the woman did not have to marry her son.

So we climbed both hills (which are not very tall as it didn’t take too long) and looked at the views of Kampong Cham, wandered around the Wats and tried to avoid the hoards of monkeys that were roaming around. (This was Paul’s 3rd visit to the hills and the last time him and Dave got chased by angry monkeys so we were a little nervous).

Paul (on the way back down).

The monks don't seem to mind the monkeys!

My favourite moment was meeting a group of young monks. We asked if we could take a picture of them and they dutifully posed for us. As soon as we’d finished they whipped out their mobile phones and started taking pictures of us!! So much for letting go of all worldly possessions!

One of the monks spoke very good English and arranged everyone for the picture.

If you look closely you can see the mobile phone.

Here we are at the top of Woman Hill.