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30 Jun 2011

Reasons to be thankful...

For the last two weeks I've been back in the UK.  This wasn't organised to coincide with Wimbledon, I came back at short notice to attend my Grandfather's funeral.

While here I've been noting things that I always took for granted before leaving for Cambodia.  These aren't the big things like free access to high quality public services or relatively open and fair systems of governance. It's the really simple things that you get used to every day but don't realise just how lucky you are to have them.  So, in no particular order, here are my reasons to be thankful, followed by some things that I can't wait to get back to in Cambodia:

1.  Sitting on a toilet, reading a book, at leisure and free from any fear of getting bitten on the bum by a mosquito.  This is a highly under-rated luxury, for comparison, read Gilly's notes on our current accommodation in Cambodia.  It's also worth bearing in mind that huge numbers of Cambodians don't even have a squatting toilet.

2.  Running water which can be drunk directly from the tap.  People often moan about 'Eau de Hackney' tasting a bit funny but at least it can be trusted not to strike you down with one of the many illnesses lurking in the barely filtered 'Eau de Mekong'.  I wrote a bit about the chore of water management previously and I will never again complain about paying water rates in the UK to have this service outsourced.

3.  Hot showers.  A bit of a plumbing theme on these first three but the immense pleasure of standing under pressured jets of hot water cannot be under-rated.

4.  Real ale.  I seem to have lost the ability to drink a pint at any kind of respectable speed but this means that I'm savouring the taste of each one for much longer.  Inflation means that a pint under £3 seems a rarity but having the choice is priceless.

5.  Food, glorious food.  I like the food in Cambodia but its one flaw is the lack of variety.  In London it really is possible to buy almost anything from anywhere at any time and I've exploited this ruthlessly.  Again though it's the simple things that really remind you of what you miss - the first thing I had after landing was a bowl of weetabix with fresh milk.  I was also overwhelmed by a number of lamb meals, notably an outstanding kebab on Saturday evening and a delicious roast dinner on Sunday.

6.  The climate.  I seem to have been lucky with the weather while I've been back but the major benefit is the ability to go about your business without constantly sweating.  Despite being a heatwave over the last two weeks I have felt very comfortable in the absence of the humidity levels that I've become used to.

7.  Friends and family.  Here I am with my family after the funeral.  The loss of a family member only sharpens the appreciation you have for those who are close to you and, even with email and skype, nothing beats sitting  enjoying a beer and a meal together.  It's been a real treat to spend two weeks doing just that.

8.  A quiet night's sleep.  No yapping dogs or cockerels who can't tell the difference between night and day here.

9.  Unrestricted access to bed.  There are no end of problems caused by the need to have a mosquito net permanently over the bed, slipping in and out with ease is worth being thankful for.

10.  No insects.  Not having to cover myself in the nasty deet-based mosquito repellent three times each day and being able to store food without fear of an ant attack both save time and make life easier.

You might wonder why on earth I'm bothering to get back onto the plane tomorrow and leave all of this 'luxury' behind.  Well there are reasons to be thankful in Kratie too.  Again, in no particular order (well, maybe after the first one):

1.  Gilly.  This might be cheating a bit as she'll be with me wherever I am in the world but right now she's in Kratie and that's something worth getting back for.  We also have much more time with each other in Cambodia because we eat every single meal together and don't have busy weekends doing separate things like we used to in England.

2.  Riverside living.  I've heard people say that living beside water increases well-being and I think there may be something in that.  An evening drink as the sun sets over the Mekong is something to savour while I have it within easy reach every day.

3.  Free tea.  Nearly every cafe/restaurant meal comes with a bottomless pot of tea and cups of ice to refresh the parts that plain water can't reach.  This obviously makes Gilly very happy but it could get very expensive when we come back if we don't break the easily formed habit.

4.  1.5 minute commute to work.  I think my shortest commute ever in the UK was at least 30 minutes.  That's five hours in total each week, versus my current 15 minutes.

5.  Two hour lunchbreaks (or in Gilly's case three hours).  These are almost a necessity given the heat but I think that any culture that embraces a snooze after lunch can count themselves as more civilised than those who don't.  I was born for siesta and Cambodia more than meets my needs in this respect.

6.  Hammock time.  What better way to take your lunchtime rest than swinging gently in a hammock with a fan to cool you?  The trouble is getting back up again when 2pm and another 1.5 minute commute comes around...

7.  Gregarious locals.  In contrast to the largely moody and miserable looking faces that have taken over in London, Cambodians are always up for exchanging a smile, saying hello and having a chat.  Obviously we attract more attention because we're foreigners but you just have to sit in a minibus and listen to a bunch of complete strangers chat non-stop for five hours to see that this outgoing nature is in the genes.

8.  Tropical fruits.  I saw a tiny pineapple that cost over £3 in the Waitrose and realised just how lucky we are to be able to pick up a delicious big one in the market for less than 50p.  Mangoes, bananas and many others fall into this category.

9.  Ban Chow and other local restaurants.  Eating out is almost as cheap as cooking at home and I am looking forward to reacquainting myself with the delicious Vietnamese crepes (Ban Chow) and my favourite sweet and sour dish from our local eatery.

10.  The climate.  Yes, it's on both lists but something has to be said for year round t-shirt weather, no cold spells and relatively predictable patterns of rain (i.e. six months on, six months off).

And one from both places...

1.  The Internet.  It's difficult to imagine what volunteering with VSO in the 1970s would have been like but we are certainly lucky to be doing it at a time where you never really lose touch with those back home.  This blog, email and skype are fantastic ways of communicating, and with Facebook and people blogging back home we're always getting news about what our friends and family are doing.  This is definitely worth stopping for a moment and being thankful for but, like I said above, nothing beats a pint and plate of food with friends.

So, the trip is almost over and I've just realised that I haven't had a pie since I've been here.  I'll try to tick that off for lunch or dinner.  It's been a lovely visit, the next one (with both of us) is planned for April 2012.

21 Jun 2011

Road Trip

Mondulkiri here we come!

To celebrate Ingran's 30th birthday and the fact that I now have full medical clearance again (and never have to go back to Bangkok!), we jumped on our motos and headed the 200 and something kilometers east to Mondulkiri (which means something like the meeting of mountains (or hills to anyone outside of Cambodia)).

The road to Mondulkiri (this is not what normal roads in Cambodia look like! This one is very very new).

After a few false starts of me faffing too much and forgetting my trainers, then my raincoat, then the water, then my helmet, we were finally on the way, only to discover after 10 minutes of driving that I'd forgotten my rucksack!! By 6.45am (45 minutes later than planned) we were on our way.

The drive was pretty eventful in the sense that I nearly hit a dog, a big branch shattered my wing mirror and Ingran skidded in some mud and dropped the bike although he managed to stay standing (!!). The best bit, though, was in Snoul, which is normally a pretty unexciting place. We'd just finished breakfast, and were back on the bikes which happened to be facing opposite directions.

Me: Which way do you wanna go?
Ingran: I don't mind.
Me: Well, we can either go down that dirt road and then join onto the main road or go the opposite way and back onto the road. What we don't want to do is go straight up that cliff onto the road.
Ingran: yeah ok

He then promptly revved the bike and headed straight up the cliff at alarming speed. I was pretty sure he'd just agreed we weren't doing that. The look on his face once he managed to reach the top indicated that he definitely had not done that on purpose. I laughed so hard I cried and it still makes me laugh out loud when I think about it.

Birthday boy!

Mondulkiri is beautiful but much colder than Kratie. It's in the hills and despite raining constantly, it was an amazing weekend.

Paul and Tak were the perfect hosts.

We even managed a swim in a waterfall.

And a party...

Which involved:



A bit of fighting...

and a bit of making up afterwards...

The next day we drank a lot of tea and nursed the hangovers before a break in the rain allowed us to venture out and enjoy the views.

15 Jun 2011


A few weeks ago we started noticing small bites being taken out of our bananas every night.  We assumed it was the big gecko that has taken up residence in our kitchen and weren't too worried as he also takes out a lot of unsavoury insects, namely mosquitoes.

One night we thought we'd try to protect the bananas by covering the top of the basket we keep them in.  Our theory about the gecko seemed misinformed when we woke up to find that one whole patch of the basket had been gnawed through and another chunk taken out of another banana.

Entrance/escape route

We then became even more worried when we came back from being away for the weekend to find a huge hole eaten into our mosquito net.  In our bedroom!

The final straw was on Monday night this week when Gilly was in Bangkok and I was home alone.  I had drifted off into a great sleep when I was woken up by something biting on my finger.  It gave me a huge shock, even more so when I heard something scurrying across the floor of our bedroom.

Luckily it didn't draw blood but it could only be one thing, a rat!  (Or possibly a mouse...)

Fellow volunteer Zac had tackled a similar problem in his house last year so it was off to the market to get some sticky glue and lay a cunning banana-laden trap for our new friend.  One trap, one night, and one wriggling rodent to show for it in the morning.  That'll teach him to interfere with Sam's sacred sleep!

Meet your mousey maker!

[Only one mouse was harmed in the writing of this blog.  It has now been put firmly out of its misery.]

10 Jun 2011

Kratie Market Update

To be fair, Kratie Market was never the most beautiful place but it was our market and I loved it. I have found the speed to which it has been bulldozed a little unsettling. Only four days after the fire burnt it to the ground, it has been nearly completely leveled. It has taken a lot of hard work and manual labour but it seems it will now be ready for the building of a new market.

Children watch the bulldozers at work

Empty shells

These stalls survived but sadly all the wedding materials sold here are heaped on the ground in front.

So the question is, how are we coping without a market? Well, luckily for us it will take more than a fire to squash the Cambodian spirit and almost the very next day, despite huge losses, people were out building temporary stall wherever they could and are selling whatever they have left. It has been amazing to see and the feeling is one of shared experiences, with people working together to help each other through these difficult times. The market can now be found all over the town!

Outside people's houses

Along the river front

Down side streets

By the minivan station

Obviously for someone like me with a certain amount of OCD, this situation has caused some anxieties. I can't always find the people I normally buy things from which I find a bit stressful as I like consistency. However, on the plus side, I can now do my shopping from my bike as I cycle home along the river. What's better than that?

9 Jun 2011

Working hard - finally!

It's an extremely hot Thursday lunch time and Sam is making the most of our long break by reading in the hammock. I, however, want to blog about the amazing week I have had at work. In the beginning, things at work were very slow and I found it quite hard especially as I missed teaching so much. I still do miss it but now I get to visit schools and think about ideas for lessons which I am loving. I came back from my 2 months of sick leave a bit worried that my office may have forgotten about me but it seems that the opposite has happened. I was welcomed back excitedly and suddenly given a counter-part to work with from the primary office at the POE (Provincial Office of Education). It appears VSO had had an Employers workshop while I was in Bangkok and my partner organiation now have a much better idea of how to work with a volunteer. I also realised that all those months that I spent doing what I felt was 'nothing' was actually a really important time in terms of relationship building and learning about education in Cambodia. I now know a lot of people in the education world of Kratie town from attending numerous workshops and ceremonies.

A combination of having a counter-part and speaking more Kmai has meant that great things are now happening for me. On Tuesday morning, me, Chhay (my assistant) and Soknan (my counter-part) woke up early to leave Kratie at 6am for an observation of Kmai Literacy in grade 1 in one of my target schools just over an hour away in Chhlong district.

The raising of the flag ceremony that every school does every day. It is the first time I have seen it.

We arrived on time and observed the lesson then had rice and pork together for breakfast as we discussed the lesson. This was incredibly useful for me as I learnt loads about ways to give feedback in Cambodia. I wanted to have a one-one with the teacher but apparently this is not the way it is done here. In Cambodia, feedback is given with the teacher, the school director and anyone else who wants to take part. At first this made me feel uncomfortable for the teacher but he seemed perfectly happy sitting next to the school director who took notes on my feedback.

Here we all are: Soknan is sitting opposite me, the teacher has already left but was sitting next to her, the other lady is the deputy director and opposite her is a man from admin.

Me and Soknan had discussed the lesson and had decided what feedback we wanted to give together. She is really open to learning some new ideas for grade 1 and liked my suggestions of games and activities for pairs and groups and always adds her opinion and ideas to my suggestions. In the second school, Soknan gave the feedback to the teacher after we observed the Maths lessons. We had a lot of the same ideas about things and I supported the ideas with examples of how it could be done differently (for example, instead of slamming a stick down on the table, could the teacher trying clapping a rhythm to get the children's attention!? Soknan agreed this would be much better).

A Literacy lesson

The next day we were all up early again to catch the boat to the island for another grade 1 observation. After giving the feedback to the teacher, we had a meeting with the school director about supporting the school with books for the library as this year we have some additional funding for small projects. Suddenly, the primary advisor from the DOE (District Office of Education) arrived and took part in the meeting too. He had some really interesting ideas and lots of experience about the other school in the Kratie city district. He has also decided he wants to attend the next two observations we have in 2 weeks time at the 2 other target schools. I am feelng so happy and excited that we can all work together and that hopefully this will be sustainable after I leave. I was feeling a bit worried as building the capacity of the teachers is good but if no one else continues that work then eventually it will fizzle out. This way the POE and DOE are involved together.

An example of a library in the school opposite my office.

As my Kmai is now good enough to have conversations (and teach the teachers in my office English) it feels like I'm having a massive breakthrough in relationships at work. I can now have long chats with people and even though I don't understand everything, I can manage to maintain them for much longer than before. It means that I don't need to wait for Chhay to be at the office to get work done. This morning, I discussed the differences between pre-school in Cambodia and in England and went to the market with Soknan to buy resources for activities at the schools. She then took me round the practice school attached to the Teacher Training College as it is a 'model school' to look at how they make their displays there.

Ideas for displays

After drinking a sugar cane juice drink together we went back to the office and made a 'good sitting' poster to support the teacher who normally uses a stick. We hope the pictures of good listening, good sitting etc and lots of praise will help the children behave without the threat of a stick. I found the pictures, backed them onto the poster and now Soknan will write the words in Kmai to go with it.

Soknan showed me resources she has made for grade 1 when she worked at the Teacher Training College which are being used in the practice school

I feel like I'm just about bursting with all the possibilties this brings and am so happy to be busy and working well with other people. The next few months will be busy as there are a lot of workshops and activities planned from the funding and I'm also going to be visiting my schools as often as possible. I'm teaching English twice a week which has also made a difference to my relationships and I wish I'd done it sooner although my Kmai may not have been good enough before. I've also just started teaching English in an orphanage with one of the new Japanese volunteers. All of that and my course is going to keep me super busy which is great - finally!

Grade 1 at the model school

One of my target schools

5 Jun 2011

Here comes the rain....

The rainy season has well and truely started now (early) and we feel lucky to have missed the swealtering heat that we heard so much about before arriving. Instead, we have unpredictable and often very heavy downpours to contend with. But never fear as we have invested in various ways to stay dry. Sam is sporting one of them below.

Off to work in an early morning shower

As the rains mean the river levels rise, we have had to say goodbye to the lovely picnic area that is Kampee which sadly I feel I have not been able to make the most of this year.

Our last visit to Kampee this year with Ingran and Linda

Today, after a weekend of mainly studying and work, me and Sam set off to expore some more of Kratie and stumbled upon the new rainy season Kampee which we are calling Lily Huts. We spent the afternoon chilling here and admiring the beautiful view.

There have been a few uplifting moments recently depite our sadness over the market situation. The carnival has been in town and after 2 failed attempts due to rain, we finally made it there last Thursday. The highlight of the evening was watching motorbike drivers drive round inside a wooden cyclinder shaped area. The video below will explain it better. It was quite exciting and impressive but I don't think I'll be doing it again as the whole contraption that we were standing on shook for the entire time - no health and safety here. Zac and I lost the bet that they would be wearing helmets and had to buy Abi and Quennie a beer!


And then there was the boat party in Phnom Penh to celebrate 20 years of VSO in Cambodia (see Ingran's blog for 10 ways to organise a successful party). It was a really fun night with lots of...



And Angkor beer!

Our batch: we all arrived together in September

Sam showing off his London hat wearing style

And of course the night ended with us seeing if we could all fit into a tuk tuk together. We managed nine but the other fifteen people had to get their own tuk tuks!

The rain has made sitting by the river a bit more difficult but we still get the occassional amazingly beautiful sunset.

We don't have any holiday plans at the moment as I've been away so much but also because July and August are seriously lacking in the public holiday department. I'm sure someone will realise this soon and amend the situation. We are, however, looking forward to the stream of visitors that will hopefully start arriving in October through to December.