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Cambodia 2011

a travel blog by lucy3119

Teaching and touring in Cambodia in August 2011
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Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Set off for Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on Friday 5th on the same flight that I'd been on two years before heading off on my big Thai adventure. Travelling alone for the first time meant a very boring (and slightly lonely!) few hours at Heathrow airport, but on the plane I found myself sat next to a fellow lone traveller...between chatting to him and the endless offerings of food forced on us by the Thai Airways cabin crew, the 11.5 hour flight passed more quickly than I'd expected. I left my plane buddy at the transfer desk at Bangkok airport and headed onwards to Phnom Penh, arriving at 9am on Saturday. This flight wasn't quite as fun, as I was seated next to the creepiest Cambodian man I've ever met (with one exception...) who insisted on leering over at me as I filled in my visa forms.

My project coordinator Kimlay was waiting for me outside the airport together with fellow volunteer Rachna, and we headed for our guesthouse for the week, the Narin 2. Within minutes of arriving we met the third member of our group, Alannah, who'd arrived the night before. The three of us were given a room together on the top floor, which is where most of the guesthouse staff live, sleeping in the corridor and showering on the balcony area outside our room!

The other two girls from our group had yet to arrive so the three of us headed out for a wander around the city. Somehow, we made our way by foot to the riverfront via the outside of the Royal Palace (turning down numerous tuk tuk drivers along the way). Not used to the heat of monsoon season, we were sweating all over the place within minutes, and were pretty pleased when it started to rain. We discovered aircon in a fancy restaurant where we felt slightly out of place, all sweaty and dishevelled. We made a good call when we decided to take a tuk tuk back to the hostel, as it started to chuck it down within seconds of climbing in. We passed the rest of the afternoon getting massages - unfortunately I ended up in more pain afterwards than before!

Back at the hostel we met Melissa, the fourth member of our group, as well as Jess and her mum Debs (Australians volunteering at a childcare centre) and we all headed out for dinner by the river. Kids selling books kept 'harassing' us while we ate, and one kid with a great personality and great English won us all over and got sales out of us. We later learned that we should avoid buying things from kids as every sale they get is another day their parents send them out selling things instead of going to school...but every night we ate at the riverfront, the same kids kept coming back so that we got to know them over the week and spent some time chatting with them even as they tried to sell us stuff, so atleast they got some English practise!

Back at the hostel, we spotted a rat near the kitchens. We decided to pretend we hadn't spotted a rat near the kitchens.

permalink written by  lucy3119 on August 6, 2011 from Phnom Penh, Cambodia
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Getting (dis)oriented

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Chocolate pancakes for breakfast at the hostel! We started the day with a tuk tuk tour of the city before heading for our volunteer project orientation...the thing was, nobody had told us we were headed for the project, so when our tuk tuk veered off into a network of narrow lanes with the other volunteers' tuk tuks nowhere to be seen, for a minute we did wonder if we were being kidnapped.

Met Maz (the fifth and final member of our group) and Toyah and Maddie (volunteers working at an orphanage). Visited Library 1 (actually a school, not a library!) and the childcare centre where our orientation took place. We walked through the rubbish dump slum where the kids who come to the volunteer schools live. Walking through a slum is so different to just seeing one on TV. An adorable pair of girls followed us around giggling and grabbing our hands as we walked. This was our first experience of how cheerful many Cambodians remain despite their less than ideal circumstances.

Later, we stocked up on lunches for the week at the Lucky Mall...intrigued by 'fried ice cream', I bought some only to find it was revolting. Made up for the disappointment by buying cake.

In the evening Kimlay and Ritthy took us to a restaurant used by the locals where we barbecued our own meat and squid on a table-top BBQ. I gave the squid a try despite not being a seafood fan...can't say it's grown on me. As the restaurant was aimed at locals rather than tourists, the whole meal plus two giant kegs of Angkor beer came to just $2.50 each!

As everyone else went to bed, Alannah, Toyah and I hung around downstairs where we were tricked into downing more beers with the staff, who were having a leaving party for one of them.

permalink written by  lucy3119 on August 7, 2011 from Phnom Penh, Cambodia
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First day at project

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Up at 6:45am so that we could make the hour-long tuk tuk ride to our project, arriving at 9am. The journey was a crazy combination of the typically mad SE Asian traffic followed by bumpy and ridiculously dusty dirt roads as we headed into the rural villages just outside Phnom Penh. Alannah, Rachna and I were sent to work at Library 2 (again, a school, not a library!), a school for rural kids who otherwise wouldn't have access to education. The kids were waiting for us just inside the school gates and their enthusiastic welcome was pretty overwhelming - when I first arrived at my project in Thailand two years ago, us volunteers were generally either ignored by the kids or gazed at suspiciously!

I was assigned to Class C, the beginner's English class. They'd been slowly working their way through the alphabet for a few months and I started off by watching the usual teacher teach them the letter 'W'. They basically learn one word starting with the day's letter and learn a sentence with that word in it - for example: 'Watch...this is a watch...my mother gives me a watch'. They do a lot of reciting as a group, then take turns to read the sentences individually from the board. It was pretty straightforward but I found a real problem with this approach - the kids were memorising the sentences, rather than really reading them and forming words from individual letter sounds. It was clear they had no grasp of phonics, as when I gave them two words starting with the same letter, they couldn't grasp the fact that both started with the same sound.

However, I had to stick with the same approach that the kids were used to, as their English (and my Cambodian, I guess!) was too basic for me to be able to explain a new approach to them. I decided to see how things went over the next few lessons before getting disillusioned...

On the way home, spotted a family of six all on one moto. Was impressed.

Ate dinner at the Orussey market near our hostel at the suggestion of another two volunteers, Anna and Andy, who'd been volunteering for over a month by the time we'd arrived. We got a very edible pork dish for literally nothing at all (less than a dollar I believe), with free soup thrown in.

permalink written by  lucy3119 on August 8, 2011 from Phnom Penh, Cambodia
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Back to school

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Back to school to teach another (slightly repetitive) lesson on the alphabet to Class C...tried to add interest with games such as Hangman. The kids love team games where they have to race to fill in the blanks in words or solve anagrams faster than their opponents. In the afternoons I teach with another volunteer, Thy, a Cambodian student on her school holidays, who gave me a few new ideas for tasks.

Helped paint the school walls white ready for a mural that Jess and Debs would be coming to help paint over the next couple of days. Somehow managed to end up looking like I'd sat in the paint pot and wandered around the Russian market after school without realising (the others said they "thought I already knew about it"...)

Another dinner at the riverside, panicked and ordered a pizza with a whole fried egg on top of it. Our bookselling friends returned for a banter (and to try and get us to buy books, obviously! Jess and Debs ended up with pretty much a full library of books to take home with them by the time they left!)

permalink written by  lucy3119 on August 9, 2011 from Phnom Penh, Cambodia
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Covered in paint

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Another day of reciting words from the alphabet for Class C. I should probably have explained that there are two different Class C's, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, each with different students in them, although a handful of students do come to both classes when they can. Each class gets three 45 minute lessons a day with 15 minute breaks in between, when they can play in the yard. Once or twice a week they get 'sport' sessions, and on Fridays there are no classes: instead the kids get 'sanitation' sessions, otherwise known as a good wash.

Because some kids attend both classes, and the morning class is a good three letters behind the afternoon class, it's a bit of a nightmare trying to keep track of who knows what already! Still, whether they know what they're doing or not, the kids are ridiculously enthusiastic, standing up on their chairs and screaming 'I KNOW I KNOW I KNOW' whenever I ask them a question, and literally ploughing each other down when I ask one of them to write on the board! If only kids in England tried to impress their teachers as much!

Jess and Debs came to paint the mural onto the outside of the school wall, and since we got a 2 hour lunch break, the volunteers, teachers and even some of the kids AND our tuk tuk drivers (who wait around all day to take us home as it's the only way they're guaranteed business) joined in.

After work Alannah, Rachna and I went shopping for supplies for the school, and we unintentionally discovered where all the tourists hang out...very oddly, in stationery shops.

We spent another evening at the riverside, this time accidentally wandering down the slightly more expensive (by Cambodian standards, anyway!) side of the road and ended up eating on the balcony restaurant of a hotel - at least it meant one night of not having to come up with excuses as to why we didn't want to buy any books from our bookseller friends!

permalink written by  lucy3119 on August 10, 2011 from Phnom Penh, Cambodia
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Volunteering cut short

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

My last and best day at the school, helped finish The Amazing Mural and got to take my class out for their 'sport' lesson which actually involved the kids sitting around me and teaching me to count in Cambodian, which I forgot within about 30 seconds of learning.

I will miss the "Hello teacher!"s and the "PICK ME PICk ME PICK ME"s and the hugs and high-fives, and the little notes and pictures snuck into my back pockets when I'm not looking.

Actually, tomorrow was supposed to be my last day at the school, but my volunteering was unexpectedly cut short when my foot swelled up to twice its Normal size and became ridiculously painful, thanks to a bite (the only bite!) that I'd got three days before. The kids' attempts at blowing on my "balloon foot" didn't really help so it was off to hospital for a second opinion! Left the Royal Rattanak hospital with about a million different kinds of pills to take, handed to me in a slightly too cheerful paper bag! A pair of volunteer medical students we met one day informed me that I really didn't need all those pills but I wasn't taking any chances - I needed to be able to walk again in two days time, ready for our tour of Phnom Penh! So I had to pass up dinner and spend the night (and the following day) in bed under the fan in my stuffy room with my foot in the air.

permalink written by  lucy3119 on August 11, 2011 from Phnom Penh, Cambodia
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Snake - the cure for balloon feet?

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

This blog entry should be a short one - I spent most of the day in bed with my big, swollen foot up on a pillow. Even the TV refused to take pity on me, jamming up and blasting out music at top volume until I could drag myself out of bed to turn it off. I would have expected nothing less from good old Narin 2!

Was rescued at lunch time by Jess and Debs, who I hobbled downstairs to eat lunch with before they left for a weekend in Siem Reap.

In the evening, I decided to ignore the doctor's instructions and head out for another BBQ dinner to celebrate Ritthy's birthday, with volunteers, his friends and teachers from all the volunteer schools. The restaurant not having a cake knife handy for cutting his birthday cake, Ritthy decided a meat cleaver would be a good enough substitute.

We also got to try snake on a skewer, but the thing was all bones and we soon gave up gnawing on it for fear of broken teeth.

permalink written by  lucy3119 on August 12, 2011 from Phnom Penh, Cambodia
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The limping tour

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Today we got our walking (make that limping - my foot was still huge!) tour of Phnom Penh, starting off at the Royal Palace. Our guide was a fount of information but honestly, it was so insanely hot (especially since we were all covered up as per the palace rules) it was difficult to keep track of which king ruled when and so on. Alannah and I escaped to the slightly cooler throne hall, but sadly we didn't spot any royalty. As we followed our tour guide back to the exit we spotted an interesting looking staircase leading up to an unexpected little temple surrounded by trees and buddha statues.

We moved on to Wat Phnom, the city's best known temple. We noticed cages full of birds outside, and discovered you could pay a dollar to release two birds (one for you and one for your partner) for good luck re: marriage/babies. Being single, our main priority as we handed over our cash was just to help our birds fly away to freedom, though I wouldn't be surprised if the same birds keep ending up being caught over and over again!

We then visited Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (also known as S-21, an old school converted into a prison by the Khmer Rouge). It's where political prisoners were interrogated and tortured (and often killed) before being sent to the Killing Fields. It was a pretty moving experience seeing the converted classroom/prison cells (some apparently still with blood stains on the floor tiles) and the mug shots of all the victims - many of them children. Only 7 prisoners are known to have survived, and one of them was actually selling and signing his autobiography outside the prison.

Not surprisingly we then headed on to the Killing Fields, where we walked along a path scattered with the clothes and fragments of bones of the buried victims, washed up each year during the rainy season. Apparently bones were placed along the footpaths so that new arrivals to the camp would have to walk over them. The memorial, filled with the bones of those found in the mass graves, was eerie but fitting.

For our final dinner in Phnom Penh we found ourselves accidentally back at the restaurant we ate at on the first night, and our bookseller friends soon found us - by this point, they didn't even bother to try to sell us anything, they were just happy to have a banter and tell us about their lives.

permalink written by  lucy3119 on August 13, 2011 from Phnom Penh, Cambodia
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Phnom Penh to Siem Reap

Siem Reap, Cambodia

We took a six-hour bus journey to Siem Reap - we almost didn't make it as our coordinator Kimlay had completely forgotten about us! We made our own way to the bus station and he met us there, laid-back as always, to say goodbye. He gave us each a traditional Cambodian scarf (endless ways to wear it!), which was lovely of him.

We couldn't believe just how bad the main road through Cambodia was - if it had been a proper surfaced road, it would have taken less than half the time to make the journey to Siem Reap. It was a reminder of how much Cambodia still has to recover from its all too recent struggles.
We kept ourselves entertained on the bus journey by watching Cambodian music videos, which divide into two categories:
a) miserable videos, in which the heroine ultimately dies in the arms of her lover (dying of shock was our favourite)
b) covers of English-speaking songs with hilarious subtitles (my favourite being a toss up between "...lying a roll on..." and "ho ho ho, where do I go?")

During our lunch stop Alannah and I hunted down and bought tasty tarantula snacks, but considering I couldn't even touch the thing without feeling nauseous and Alannah wasn't a fan of the hairy legs, we never actually made it to the sampling stage.

We arrived at our incredible, luxurious, AIR CONDITIONED hotel WITH POOL, the Angkor Spirit Palace and met Lily, Kimlay's sister and our Siem Reap coordinator. We went for dinner at Lily and Kimlay's father's restaurant (keeping it in the family, clearly!), next to the Central Market which has been all but abandoned by tourists in favour of the night market next to Bar Street. As a result it was cheaper and we bought most of our souvenirs there.

permalink written by  lucy3119 on August 14, 2011 from Siem Reap, Cambodia
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Temple time!

Siem Reap, Cambodia

Let the temple tour begin!

First stop - Bayon in the Angkor Thom complex. Not being the biggest fan of tour guides as you can't really soak up the atmosphere of an incredible place like Bayon when you're listening to endless temple trivia (sorry!), Alannah and I were forced to get 'lost' in the endless labyrinths of the temple, stumbling upon all sorts of places the tour guides don't take you - at one point, we ended up in a pitch-black chamber with two more tourists with a torch, bat-spotting...until one of them almost collided with Alannah's face (a bat, not a tourist). We finally made it up to the top of the temple, where we came face-to-face with...er...faces. Huge ones. Made of stone. Had to join the queue for the obligatory nose-to-nose tourist shot.

Next stop - Ta Phrom. I was most excited about this one - the trees growing out of the rock just blow my mind. It was wonderfully atmospheric and not as crowded as Bayon (our guide informed us that this was because "all the Japanese tourists have gone for lunch"!), but for some reason viewing platforms had been built in front of the most picturesque parts of the temple, which slightly ruined the effect!

And finally - Angkor Wat - not as amazing as the others, particularly because the incredible, iconic front of the temple was covered in scaffolding!! Oh the irony of scaffolding - ruins famous landmarks but at the same time stops famous landmarks from becoming ruins! Things really got exciting when it started raining - taking another little breather from our guide (who was at this point complaining about Korean tourists!) Alannah and I were gazing out at the scenery when we started to hear the sound of torrential rain...the thing was, we couldn't SEE the rain. We waited, completely baffled, until eventually about 100 metres away we saw torrential rain. It took another five minutes for the rain to actually reach us - it was the most bizarre weather-related thing I'd ever seen. Weather in England tends to be slightly more predictable. Climbed to the top of Angkor Wat, which had some great views of the temple and surrounding landscape, and watched monkeys walking along the roof. Had 5 minutes of panic when I couldn't find the way out thanks to the symmetrical nature of the place, and suspected I would be stuck there for ever.

permalink written by  lucy3119 on August 15, 2011 from Siem Reap, Cambodia
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