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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.


  1. I think I will miss the random friendliness of people. Not necessarily the guy love, but the chattiness and smiles that you describe. I wouldnt say London is unfriendly, but it certainly has a tendency towards paranoia. I am pretty sure if I smiled at a stranger at a bus stop, they would uncomfortably shift a few metres away!

  2. Yes, normally public friendliness in London is restricted to children and 'madmen'.