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13 Nov 2012

Koh Kong and Kayaking

This week Sarah and Will arrived for their two week Cambodian holiday which was wicked.  I met them at Phnom Penh airport and then we headed to Koh Kong in the South-west of Cambodia, a totally new province for me.

Despite them being a little bit jet lagged, we managed to fit in quite a lot in our 2 and a half days in Koh Kong.

 Koh Kong has both rivers and the sea so our activities tended to revolve around those.

On the first day we visited the beautiful Tatai Waterfall...

 ...where you can also go swimming.

On the second day we took a boat trip to Koh Kong island which is a protected area and very beautiful and secluded.

We swam and snorkeled and generally enjoyed our beautiful surroundings

The guide and boat driver cooked us a delicious lunch of BBQ-ed chicken and vegetables.  It was a great trip apart from the fact that I got bitten by numerous sand flies and have been incredibly itchy ever since.

 On the way back to town, we glimpsed a dolphin in the distance as we went up a river to visit the mangrove forest.

Views of the mangrove forest from the watch tower

 The mangrove forest as we walked through it

From Koh Kong we headed back to Phnom Penh for a day and then onto Kratie. Luckily for us, Suzanne has just moved to Kratie and opened Sorya Kayaking Tours so we were able to take advantage of the launch of her business on the Friday afternoon along with Gordon and Claire, VSO volunteers in Phnom Penh who were also visiting Kratie this weekend.

Getting our briefing from Suzanne before we set off

On the way to the starting point

Ready for action

 Me and Sam (fully covered up from the sun in true Cambodian fashion) attempting to coordinate our strokes (this was after about 5 minutes on the water and I was already tired - god knows how my brother managed to do this for 10 days)

 Coline and Greg looking cool and composed in their kayak

A brief stop for some pictures and a bit of swimming to cool off

Sarah and Will with Coline and Greg in the background going in opposite directions. I think it's safe to say that none of us really knew what we were doing!

 Claire and Gordon sailing off into the sunset

We all had a great time and would definitely recommend it to other visitors to Kratie.

We've had action-packed days with lots of swimming, walking, and kayaking which have left me realising that I'm really not that fit!  Sadly Sarah and Will have set off yesterday on their own to visit Siem Reap and I am left with the daunting task of adding the final touches to my dissertation and handing it in.  Freedom here I come, just in time to make the most of our holiday in Cambodia in December and our big trip starting in January. 

4 Nov 2012

Now published: Hand-Painted Signs of Kratie

Hand-Painted Signs of Kratie
Ladies & Gentlemen,

I present to you what many are tipping for this year's surprise Christmas best seller, my first book, Hand-Painted Signs of Kratie. It is now available to buy in printed and eBook formats (suitable for iPad, Kindle, Nook and most other eReading devices and applications). There is also a free preview available in various digital formats.

The book is a celebration of the art and craft of Cambodia's hand-painted advertising, 138 colour pages crammed with photos of everything from flying pigs to retro hairstyles and hand grenades.

Spread from the Beauty Salons & Barbers chapter
These images are accompanied by the unique story of the signs and the people who paint them, alongside my own observations on what they tell us about Cambodia.

Opening spread from the Introduction
Even in this book's short life many of these hand-crafted creations have fallen by the wayside and, day by day, the content of the book becomes increasingly rare.

Hand-Painted Signs of Kratie on iPad
I hope you will join me in this celebration of Cambodia's hand-painted advertising and please share with friends, but not those who you plan to give it to as a gift...
More sample spreads from the printed book and screen shots from the eBook:

Contents page from Hand-Painted Signs of Kratie
Spread from the Khmer Script chapter
Various motorbikes on hand-painted signs in Kratie
Introduction page from eBook on iPad

2 Nov 2012

Education Today article

VSO recently asked me to write an article about my placement in Cambodia for the magazine Education Today that they frequently contribute to.  Here it is:

Teacher Gilly Clifford, 32, from London, reflects on her two year VSO placement in Cambodia:

“As I approach the last month of my two year VSO placement working as a teaching and learning adviser in the small town of Kratie in North-East Cambodia, I have mixed feelings about leaving. On the one hand I’m excited about the future and ready to use what I’ve learnt from my time in Cambodia for new challenges; but I know I will also miss the town and the people I have come to love.

Cambodia is still considered a post-conflict country long after the civil war ended in the 1990s. The war destroyed Cambodia’s education system and thousands of people, including 75% of teachers, 96% of university students and 67% of all primary and secondary school pupils, lost their lives during the Khmer Rouge regime from 1975-1979 (VSO 2008).

This has had consequences for rebuilding the education system, the economy and society. Culturally, people are less inclined to question things or deviate from the norm. The education system relies on rote learning in which the teacher talks and the children listen but they don’t necessarily fully understand the subject matter. There are high drop-out and repetition rates, particularly in grade one (Rao, Pearson, Constas and Pearson 2007). In 2009, the percentage of female children repeating grades across primary school was 10% and 12% for male children (UNESCO Institute for Statistics).

I am based at the Provincial Office of Education in Kratie town and I travel across two districts in the province to help implement the Ministry of Education’s Child Friendly School Policy. Although this policy was introduced in 2002, there is little evidence in schools of the interactive approach it recommends. Over the last two years, I have focused on five target schools, working with the grade 1-3 teachers and school directors to help them implement this method of teaching through workshops, lesson observations and discussions.

My biggest success has been to develop a DVD project in which groups of teachers watch Ministry of Education produced films on literacy or maths and we discuss different learning methods. This helps the teachers to reflect on their own teaching as well as see what works so they can make improvements. After five months of doing the project, I began peer observations of each teacher and encouraged them to put these ideas into practice. The difference was striking; teachers became more confident, more responsive to the children’s individual needs and willing to try out group activities. Since then they use real objects to introduce new topics, visual aids like puppets and try out different classroom layouts, making the lessons more fun and encouraging discussions and critical thinking.

Working in Cambodia has not been without its challenges. I have definitely gained skills in negotiating, improvising and flexibility to navigate the complicated, hierarchical and bureaucratic educational system. Despite this, it is very motivational when I see teachers use my suggestions and pass these ideas on to others. I have loved my five minute commute to work cycling alongside the mighty Mekong River, buying fresh vegetables and fruit from the market and bumping into people I know every day. I can now speak a new language and ride a motorbike, two things I never thought I would be able to do. I would definitely recommend the experience to others; volunteers develop so much both professionally and personally and most importantly, are able to share their skills too.”

Rao, N., Pearson, E., Constas, M.A., & Pearson, V. (2007). Evaluation of community preschool and home based early childhood programs in Cambodia. UNICEF: Cambodia.

UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) (2012) UIS Statistics in Brief – Education Profile: Cambodia 2010. Online. Available at [Accessed 4 August 2012]

VSO (2008) Teaching Matters. A policy report on the motivation and moral of teachers in Cambodia.

And here is a link to the actual online article (it takes a minute to load) and I'm on page 7.

30 Oct 2012

End of the rains, end of my placement

 The rainy season has finally come to an end so we no longer need to travel around like this....

And with the end of the rains, comes the re-opening of the schools for the new academic year.  Sadly I only had a few weeks with the schools before I finished my placement

My last school opening ceremony with two of the Korean volunteers

As of last Friday, I am now an accompanying partner, having officially finished my two years with VSO.  It suddenly seems to have gone incredibly fast and I'm feeling pretty sad about leaving Cambodia.  My last few weeks at work were mainly spent visiting the schools and tying up a few loose ends.

In July, we did a story competition with the target schools to highlight gender issues faced by many of the children in the province when accessing school.  As the schools closed early in July due to the hand and mouth disease which affected children, I didn't get a chance to hand out the prizes to the winners until this month.

The winning students (grades 2-6) of the gender story competition from Toulmonorom School.  Each winner received a small prize and a copy of the collection of stories in a colour booklet.

The children loved seeing their stories in print

I visited one of my target schools on the island opposite the town to say goodbye and was greeted by this rather muddy road.

After dragging our bikes through the mud and ending up with shoes like this, we arrived at the school to find it closed due to the Phcum Ben festival.  We then had to go all the way back along same muddy road.  It was not one of my better last days!

I modeled an English lesson for one of the teachers who had attended the Primary English for Cambodia training supported by VSO.  It was a grade 4 class (about 9 years old) and they were unbelievably lovely.  As always it has made me super excited about being back in the classroom properly next year.

The children practiced their new words using actions in groups

 One of my last trips to a school loaded down with resources.  I'm so Cambodian nowadays that I can ride my moto with extra things at the front and back!

Despite seeing the river every morning when we go skipping, I felt like we hadn't spent enough time next to our beautiful Mekong River.  Last week we went for a walk and caught this lovely sunset which will always be the one of the things I remember most about Kratie.

15 Oct 2012

Pchum Ben in Preak Prasab

Cambodia is noisy at the best of times but the recent funeral in the house behind our bedroom was a rude awakening like no other. A speaker stack with monks' chanting kicking off at 4am even managed to top the 'ice man' from our first house. When someone dies here there are initially three days of mourning (and noise) followed by ceremonies to mark the death after seven days and 100 days.

(Turn up volume for full experience.)

Gilly was not happy last weekend when the funeral coincided with building works on both sides of the house (sampled above) as she tried to edit her dissertation. Adding to this was even more chanting from Kratie's pagodas in light of Pchum Ben (more on this later.).

We've had a building site on one side for some time but then a new one kicked off on the other side. In this case their main objective seemed to be using scaffolding to lift the house up for the insertion of a new ground floor, see below.

It wasn't just people dying. The welfare of the critically endangered Irrawaddy dolphin that lives in the Mekong about 15km North of town is carefully monitored by WWF. Their research into why the dolphins are dying is made challenging by a lack of dead specimens to examine. Over the last five months there has been a Spanish dolphin expert training the team in necropsy (an autopsy but performed on a different species than your own) and last week a fully grown adult (160kg!) was found and brought to the office for examination. This is obviously tragic for a species that numbers less than 80 but a small silver lining is that some data will become available and future discoveries can be professionally investigated to help find ways to halt their decline.

Fittingly, this weekend has marked the end of Cambodia's Pchum Ben holiday. This is 15 days, otherwise known as 'ancestor days', that signify the spirits of dead family members returning to earth. It was all a bit of a mystery to us so we were quick to accept an invitation from our surrogate family (a.k.a. our landlady) to go to her village (Preak Prasab) on the other side of the Mekong to mark the final day. (We did have a brief brush with the event early on in our placement but weren't close enough to really understand it.)

First it was onto the ferry for the 15 minute journey to the 'West Bank', somewhere that, until today, we hadn't been in two years living here.

This guy has a portable key cutting business on the back of his moto. I was pleasantly surprised to find that his tin of metal was a brand close to my heart...

A lot of Pchum Ben revolves around food, just like Christmas back home. First up was breakfast which included coconut curry, salty fried pork, fried vegetables, bread and, of course, the obligatory rice.

Next the ladies had to change into their finery, the top is her own, the sash was on loan from our landlady. For men it's just the same clothes as any other day of the week ('tomeda' in Khmer, which means normal). I'm carrying a plate of fruit which will be offered up at the pagoda later. Out of shot is a stack of tiffin tins in Gilly's hand full of more food for offering.

Other than food, money plays a big role at Pchum Ben, as it does in most Cambodian ceremonies. The event seems to double as a bit of a fundraiser for the pagoda and this 'money tree' was one of  a number of opportunities to part with some cash.

Here's a small selection of the food offerings originating in tiffin tins like the ones that Gilly was carrying. In return for our generosity we were blessed by the pagoda's monks over loudspeaker.

We also got to make a wish when we lit our incense. There were lots of wishes being made and a smoky atmosphere resulted.

The final part of the official ceremony at the pagoda was lining up to give the monks rice and money. This is part of the offering of food to the ancestors, many of whom can be hungry when they come back to earth. First, this woman comes around with a pan of water so that you can clean your serving spoon before the monks' arrival. Happiness at work is a wonderful thing!

Here are the monks walking slowly down the line to allow their bowls to be filled with rice and their plates covered with cash. Each monk has a young helper following him to scoop up the cash every now and then and deposit it into a large bag. There was also a team of men diligently emptying the rice bowls every so often to make space for the next round of spoonfuls along the line.

It was a bit of a bum rush to get your rice and money into the right places but a lot of fun all the same. Here's Gilly using her reach to good effect and, to the left, our landlady's daughter Navy doing her best to compete.

This was the end result of a few deposits from the rice collectors. It looks like the monks in this pagoda, and our collective ancestors, will be having a feast for days.

After all that formality is was time for a 'darlaing' (casual walk) and a photo shoot with Navy in the pagoda's gardens.

Death was the order of the day again on the way home where we stumbled upon the later stages of a cow being butchered. On the floor is its skin, the main meat has been taken away and all that's left are the various innards. I'm guessing the big thing is the four stomachs but these guys know best...

We finished off the morning before lunch with a 'family' photo, our landlord and landlady are in the back row.

On the drive back to Kratie Town our landlady informed us that there had been another significant death in Cambodia. Former King Sihanouk had passed away at the age of 89. Here he is singing my favourite Khmer song 'Flower of Battambang'.

It feels like today we've really understood something of Cambodian culture in contrast to our last brush with Pchum Ben as newcomers in 2010. We won't miss the noise it brings though. There is a pleasant stillness in the night as we tidy up this blog post and get ready for bed.