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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.

6 Oct 2012

Two year celebration

The other weekend, we packed our bags and headed off to the nearby province of Kampong Cham to meet up with our fellow September 2010 group to celebrate two years in Cambodia (and yet another bank holiday weekend).  There are nine of us left, although only seven could make it.  It was a great weekend filled with nostalgia and lots of catching up as the others traveled from various parts of the country. 

 The first night was spent in style at the lovely Smile restaurant which supports the local community to learn cooking and other restaurant management skills

The next day we hired bikes in an attempt to re-live the interesting bike ride from our month spent in Kampong Cham learning Khmer this time two years ago.   You can read about that adventurous trip here but this time there were no mishaps. 

Wat Nakor which is thought to be as old as the Temples of Angkor in Siem Reap and was also very beautiful.

The inside is particularly stunning with a mix of old and new.

Sam wanted his picture next to this humungous pig but she didn't want to oblige and kept running away.

The whole gang - 2010-2012 survivors!

Two years has gone so incredibly fast and now I find myself in my last month of work.  There are so many things I will miss about living and working here but there are also so many things to look forward to in the next stage of our lives.  As part of our weekend, we all sat in Kath's air-conditioned room drinking gin and tonics (it was like being at Uni again) and reflected on our time here. We had to share two things we will miss and one thing we won't miss at all!  Here they are:

Sam: Will miss: time with me (awwww) and regular daylight hours (i.e. no SAD). Won't miss: mosquitoes and everything that goes with them (DEET, nets, bites etc)
Gilly: Will miss: outdoor living and knowing all the people in the market, on our street, and in Kratie generally! Won't miss: not being able to say what I really think for fear of offending people who are higher up than me (aka EVERYBODY!)

Here's to our last three months!