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27 Jan 2011

A little bit broken...

On Tuesday, I woke up at 5.30am and got ready for my morning run along the river front. I was a bit more tired than usual as there was a wedding on our street the night before that went on until about 11pm (which is very late in Cambodia!) and they play music from these...

Yep, they are super loud!

I was pretty tired, it was still a little dark and the ground is very uneven in Kratie and I tripped and landed really hard on my left hand. It was unbelievably painful but luckily I was close to our house. My fingers were really bruised and started to swell quicky so we called Abi (a volunteer nurse in Kratie) and she said we needed to go to Phnom Penh as my finger (which was at a weird angle) was either broken or dislocated.

Here they are!

We took the quickest ride to PP in a taxi which was good in the sense that we got there quickly but bad in the sense that we nearly died about 5 times along the way as the driver was a lunatic! I had an x-ray which showed I had two broken fingers and off we went to see the doctor. He said I needed a cast in order to support both fingers and that my pinkie needed to be clicked back into place. Getting the cast on was fine but I insisted on a lot of painkillers for clicking back into place.

Poor little me! I'm making my self feel better by eating some Skittles my brother sent us...

I've got to have the cast on for 6 weeks which may seem longer to Sam than to me as he's going to have to do a lot of washing, cooking, going to the market etc. It's quite a heavy, bulky cast so doesn't allow much movement of my other fingers.

Despite the fact it is hugely annoying that I have broken my fingers (especially as the hot season is about to kick in), it could have been so much worse. As it is, it's my left hand so I can still type, write etc with my right which means I can go to work. And it's only my fingers, which is better then my arm or leg!

So actually I'm really lucky

20 Jan 2011

Where have all the fish gone?

Perhaps inspired by this article, film maker Tom Fawthrop has been working his way up and down the mighty Mekong to gain an insight into the impact of upstream damming activity on the river.  This is primarily focused on the depletion of fish stocks and, ultimately, the livelihoods of some of the poorest people in the world who live along the river's banks.  It is aptly titled 'Where Have all the Fish Gone'.

In addition to the loss of food for vast numbers of people there are also many critically endangered species that once thrived in the Mekong, the Irrawaddy freshwater dolphin being one of them (Gilly's meeting with some here).

The film is being screened in Phnom Penh at the Meta House/German Cambodian Cultural Centre at 7pm on Thursday, 3rd February.  I'm currently trying to see if I can go along and also to see if we can have a screening in Kratie.  News to follow...

[Regular readers may remember my posting about the 'Enemies of the People' film back in November.  Well, this is also being screened with director Q&A at the Meta House on Saturday, 29th January for those who missed it first time around.  It's $5 entry which also gets you a drink.]

12 Jan 2011


Next month, in Phnom Penh, TED comes to Cambodia.  For those unfamiliar with TED it is a speaker/conference programme with, in my opinion, some of the most fascinating and engaging speakers around.  There is a website which features video content, free of charge, of all the talks at their events and some of my personal favourites can be viewed at the end of this post.

The event in Phnom Penh comes under the banner of 'TEDx' which means it is independently organised and aimed at bringing the spirit of TED ('ideas worth spreading') to communities around the world.  The date is Saturday, 5th February and the event will be held at Northbridge International School Cambodia.  Here are details of the speakers.

Admission is free but you should enter the short (400-500 words) essay contest being run in conjunction with LIFT/Phnom Penh Post.  I have done so here and, for what it's worth, you can read my essay here.  If you have any queries about the essay contest, admission to the event, or anything else connected with it, then contact TEDxPhnom Penh via email:

Maybe see you there, now over to the videos to give you a sense of what TED is all about, featuring:
  • Jose Abreu on kids transformed by music, a heart-warming story, told beautifully, about the youth orchestra in Venezuela.
  • Hans Rosling on poverty, which uses graphic devices to tell the story of poverty in the world.
  • Sophal Ear on escaping the Khmer Rouge, worth remembering for TEDxPhnomPenh.
  • Ken Robinson on schools killing creativity, perhaps one of my favourites and certainly one of TED's most popular talks of all time.
  • Julian Assange on why the world needs WikiLeaks, filmed before the explosion of publicity at the end of last year but a great insight into the man and the project.
  • Dan Dennett on dangerous memes, for those who like a more philosophical talk to smoke a pipe to...
[Click the link to the original video if the chopped screen is problematic]
    Jose Abreu on kids transformed by music (original here)

    Hans Rosling on poverty (original here)

    Sophal Ear on escaping the Khmer Rouge (original here)

    Ken Robinson on schools killing creativity

    Julian Assange: why the world needs WikiLeaks (original here)

    Dan Dennett on dangerous memes (original here)
    TEDxPhnomPenh, coming soon...

    11 Jan 2011

    Kratie's Sights and Delights

    Welcome to beautiful Kratie!

    This weekend was another Bank Holiday weekend so Paul, Ingran and Dave left their provinces and headed for Kratie which is sort of the half way point for all of us. It was the first time that we've all been together since our initial training so it was great to catch up. Me and Sam also really enjoyed being able to show off our lovely little town and had organised a fun packed day of activities on Saturday.

    Sam, Ingran, Paul and Dave, at breakfast, enjoying their iced coffees with milk that actually arrived just the way they wanted them. (the words for ice and milk are very similar and ordering a coffee with both is tricky).

    We began with a trip to the island, Koh Trong, where one of my schools is so I visit it quite often. We hired bikes and cycled round the island which is supposed to be about 9km. We stopped off for a swim in the river in a beautiful spot with white, sandy beaches.

    Sam enjoying the river crossing and competing with the woman next to him to see who has the biggest hat.

    Arriving on the island

    A beautiful place for a swim

    After arriving back on the mainland, we had a tuck krow lok (fruit shake) by the river which is something me and Sam spend a lot of time doing. The other day we took the backgammon board along as well. Oh yes, our Cambodian tournament has begun.

    After the obligatory seista time over lunch, me, Paul, Dave and Ingran headed off on our motos to see the dolphins. I wasn't sure how impressed I would be as I'd heard that the dolphins are hard to spot and are quite shy, but I loved it. The sun was beginning to set and it was quiet and peaceful on the river (possibly not so peaceful for Ingran and Dave as I turned into a small high pitched child exclaiming 'oh, looooook' every few minutes as a dolphin appeared). The following pictures don't have any dolphins in them but that is because they are hard to photograph, not because we didn't see any.

    Actually there's one, right next to the boat!

    After seeing dolphins, we drove on a bit further and visited the rapids where you can have a picnic and swim. We opted for the swimming and it was my first splash in the Mekong (fully clothed of course, as is the Cambodian way, for women at least).

    We're looking forward to visiting everyone else in their provinces soon and are already planning a road trip to Stung Treng in Feb.

    9 Jan 2011

    Get a proper job...

    The rice harvest: most Cambodians depend on this type of agricultural work, largely for basic subsistence.

    Reflecting on the New Year I realised that I've now worked part time for six years i.e. most of my post-University working life, bearing in mind that I had my first job when I was 13.  Lots of people have frequently told me to 'get a proper job'  but the extra time has allowed me to do lots of things that may otherwise have remained pipe dreams, for example: my masters; gaining academic teaching experience; and the Ghostsigns project.

    I have no regrets and believe I should count myself hugely privileged to not only have the choice to take on part time work, but also to come from a country where such a huge variety of employment opportunities exist.  While I know that times are tough in the job market back home, I doubt that anyone would trade these problems for those faced by Cambodia...

    Graphs from Morris (2007)

    Youth unemployment and the lack of opportunities in rural areas are two of the country's major employment issues and I wrote about these in some research I recently did for VSO.  You can read my findings here, references available here.  The word limit forced me to omit other important issues such as child labour, the informal economy and the gender wage gap but overall the outlook is potentially very bleak for Cambodia's poorest.  Some further reflections can be found here on Kounila's guest post for TEDxPhnomPenh.

    My research was done as part of VSO's 'country strategic planning'.  VSO has a number of strands of work (development goals) but usually selects a small group of these to focus on in each country where they operate.  This is done in response to that location's most pressing issues.

    Here in Cambodia VSO's current areas of focus are Education, Health and Livelihoods.  Hopefully the first two are fairly self-explanatory but the last involves work to improve the food security and incomes of those in rural areas, especially those who are heavily reliant on limited forest and fish resources in the countryside.

    Download more on VSO and Livelihoods here or by clicking the image above.

    In the next couple of years VSO's livelihoods work in Cambodia is being done with an emphasis on the concept of 'pro-poor markets' which attempts to break down barriers and disadvantage suffered by the poor when accessing markets, namely those of products, employment and finance.  Some take this to its logical conclusion in a very commercial way by viewing the world's poor as perhaps one of the biggest business opportunities around.

    Here in Cambodia it would seem that there are more profound issues and that change is slow and incremental rather than radical in nature.  This allows the disparity to grow between the accelerated development taking place in Phnom Penh versus the lack of opportunity, infrastructure and access to knowledge and information experienced by the majority of the country's largely rural population.  However, some change is better than none and hopefully VSO's work is playing some part in the shift.

    Village scene.

    I think it is difficult to understand the life experienced by most Cambodians when we are based in a provincial capital, quite far removed from the toil of most people's subsistence agricultural work.  Our homestay and my recent trip to Koh Preah do give some insight, but even then we are one step removed from the most isolated communities who experience the most disadvantage.

    If VSO's vision of "a world without poverty" is to be realised then connecting people with markets, and the opportunities they bring, is certainly one way of achieving progress.  I am currently discussing a placement for myself which, while thrusting me back into full time status if it works out, will put me in a position to do something in this area.  (Fingers crossed, more news to follow.)  Perhaps me getting a proper job after all this time might help some people here have the opportunity to do the same...

    6 Jan 2011

    A Kratie Christmas

    A Cambodian Christmas...

    Christmas Eve was spent in excited anticipation of Paul, Jeltje and Ingran arriving and it also involved me and Sam going to church at Christmas for the first time in our lives. My VA organises celebrations at his church and invited us to attend the service.

    It was a really lovely morning with carol singing in English and Kmai (at the same time!), some songs with actions, traditional Kmai dancing and of course the obligatory singing from the barangs.

    Me, Abi and Sam were handed microphones, ushered to the front of the 60 people gathered and we rose to the challenge and sang a fairly good version of Away in a Manger (some might say this was due to the fact I was not given my own microphone but was forced to share with Sam).

    When Paul and Jeltje arrived on their motos from Mondulkiri and Ingran from Stung Treng, we celebrated all being together again with some chocolate cake baked by Jeltje, tea with milk and some Dutch ginger cookies, perfect for dunking.

    A Christmas Eve sunset

    At sunset, we met by the river for drinks with the other volunteers and then we all piled onto our motos and headed for the Vietnamese restaurant down the road for Ban Chao (yummy crepe type things filled with pork and bean sprouts and covered with a peanut/lemon sauce).

    On Christmas morning, we were up by 6am (I was very excited, as usual*) and started the day as we meant to go on: with sparkling wine and a massive fry up. Christmas is all about the yummiest food and nicest alcohol! And the presents, of course (although in church we did learn that Christmas is not just about the presents and parties...).

    *Note from Sam: "She was bouncing off the walls when stocking time came."

    Sparkling wine...

    A Fry up extraordinaire, Sam style

    Secret Santa stocking presents from the five of us to each other

    My stocking, hand sewn by Sam and filled with lovely presents!

    Our first Christmas morning together...

    Christmas lunch: cheese with...

    ...salad and baguettes! Yummy.

    Dinner altogether at Joe's, the local Western restaurant

    More carol singing

    A note from Sam: "shortly after this photo was taken I was told to leave the restaurant and never come back by the owner because I pointed out that his spirit measures as served were smaller than advertised on the menu. (Yes, the consumer champion doesn't stop at Oyster cards and Ryanair!) Paul and Ingran have both written up the event so I'll pass over to them as impartial observers to provide the details (Paul's comes after the first block of photos and Ingran's four paragraphs from the end). In hindsight it was something of a blessing in disguise as we then wandered along the river and gatecrashed the University's end of term party. This was a highly energetic affair with lots of photo calls for me and Gilly from my ex-students..."

    He's behind you!

    It was such an exciting christmas weekend that I think me and Sam used up all our energy and spent the following week going to bed at 8pm every night and when NY's eve came, we were lacking in enthusiasm and ended up asleep before 12 for the first time in our adult lives. 2010 has been an amazing year for us with lots of exciting events. Roll on 2011 with lots more fun and games! Happy New Year, everyone.

    1 Jan 2011

    Mountains and Temples

    Just before Christmas, I did two very exciting things: I visited Mondulkiri (which means Meeting of Mountains) on a Study Visit; and I went to Siem Reap for the weekend which, of course, means Angkor Wat as well.

    Jeltje, Me and Paul watching the sunset in Mondulkiri (note the scarves, it was freezing!)

    I spent 5 days in Mondulkiri visiting Jeltje (also an Effective Teaching and Learning Advisor who has been here just over a year) and Paul (Community Advisor in Education who arrived with me in September). We visited three different schools, planned some new activities with a grade 1 (6 year olds) teacher who has a class of 60 children (!!) and had an Education Team Meeting. I found the whole experience really positive, motivating and inspiring. It was great to see where I could be in terms of work in a year's time and I especially enjoyed being part of an Education team of volunteers where you can exchange ideas, plan together and generally discuss the education system in Cambodia. I definitely feel that is something I miss in Kratie as I'm the only Education volunteer (although that will all change in Feb). I left with lots of ideas of how to progress from where I am now and renewed enthusiasm. Every time I visit a school, though, it makes me miss teaching a little bit more. I don't think I was quite prepared for how much a part of my life teaching is; I feel a litle lost without 'my class'.

    A little school on an extremely windy hill...

    An avacado

    The long dusty, but beautiful road around Mondulkiri

    Jeltje, Paul and Tak discussing the new well and allotment with the school Director

    Me and Jeltje at a coffee plantation

    Siem Reap

    Another bank Holiday weekend in Cambodia, so what can you do but hit the road and see a bit more of the country.

    On the way to Siem Reap, we visited these ancient temples just outside Kampong Thom.

    The trees are taking over all the temples...

    The story of the Ramayana (Rama and Sita: Diwali)

    And now Angkor Wat. My camera ran out of battery about half way round so I didn't get the best photos in the world but here's a few to give you an idea of the impressiveness of the temples of Angkor. I especially loved the ones with trees growing all over them!

    I only spent 1 day at the temples and there's loads more to see so will definitely need to go back...