Cambodia

Ex-ex-pats

Yesterday we arrived in Thailand after 6 and a half weeks in Cambodia, 5 of which we spent living and volunteering in Phnom Penh. Way back when we started planing our trip, working or volunteering abroad was high on the list of things we wanted to do, and we spent many hours researching. When we finally found an organisation called UBELONG, both affordable and offering different types of placement (teaching English for me, something other than working with kids for Law!), we then settled on Phnom Penh as well. Having this last few weeks booked in advance helped us planning a lot of the rest of our time in Asia.

CCH

We finished last Friday, and are still digesting the experience I think! For us both, it ranged from rewarding to frustrating at times, and it took a while to get to grips with the Cambodian way of doing things. Timekeeping, organisation and the pace of work are ’different’, so in some ways 5 weeks doesn’t really feel like enough time to make a discernible impact. On the other hand, it also felt like time to move on; being in one place for such a long time was weird after so much travel.

It’s probably with rose tinted specs, but I really enjoyed my experience. I think it’s easier to see if you’re making a difference with teaching English, as the kids either improve or they don’t. I was lucky in that I had a small group to work with for at least 2 or 3 hours each day, so I could plan my lessons and see what worked and what didn’t. I also enjoyed the time I spent with the other, younger students, but such short lessons with bigger, mixed ability groups were harder to move forward. By the end of the last week, my older students had definitely improved at least a little bit and they seemed sad to see me go as well.

Grade 2

I’ll miss the students, especially the older group, and hopefully they’ll have another teacher take them over soon. They were funny, and gave me a hard time at points, but most of the time we got on very well. The melodramatic, comedy response of “Teacher, no!” to most of my instructions will always make me laugh.

The boys

Pheakdey... The little shit

It does make me think I’d like to teach English as a foreign language again possibly, but also makes me wary of short term volunteering – there were maybe some people we met during our time in Phnom Penh that were more voluntourists. Some of the orphanages and NGOs also seemed to be more interested in the money the volunteers bring, rather than the skills they might have.

Cambodia is a country with thousands of NGOs and orphanages, with huge problems with corruption and a big reliance on foreign aid, as well as a tragic recent history. Living and working here for even a short while has been a really rewarding and interesting experience. We’ve met some awesome people, had some hilarious nights out and hopefully made a little difference somewhere at some point!

Since finishing, we’ve spent a night on a desert island, met up with some Vodkatrainers, had a hassle free border crossing into Thailand, and celebrated are 12th anniversary of being together. Off now to spend another night on a train, this time to Chiang Mai.

Koh Rong Samloem

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Day 101

Yesterday was our 100th day since leaving home. We’ve been in 6 countries (including Hong Kong, not including the disorganised stopover in Germany), spent not quite as much money as we thought, eaten a lot of rice, slept through a typhoon, met some brilliant people and seen some amazing things.

Our volunteer placements finish at the end of this week, and we will get back on the road again. There are still 6 weeks or so left in Southeast Asia, but it’s hard to imagine that we will be able to pack in more than we have done in our first 101 days. We’ve spent days on end aboard a train, hiked in rice paddies, ridden mopeds, paid a border bribe, watched sunrises and sunsets in spectacular scenery and eaten spiders. From here we head to Thailand, Laos, Malaysia and Singapore, before flying to Sydney for a long weekend and then onto New Zealand. The time has flown by, and this pause from travelling to be Phnom Penh ex-pats has us itching to get going again.

In no particular order, here are some highlights and thoughts so far:

1. We were so lucky with the group of people we did the Vodkatrain tour with; so many people have horror stories from tours and our group was great. Unless we were the annoying ones…
2. Mongolia, I think, is my favourite country so far. Beautiful, interesting and not too many people. We would love to go back there and would recommend it to anyone. Well worth spendings several days on a train for.
3. The rice terraces at Longji in China were amazing, and kick the ass of the ones at Sapa in Vietnam.
4. Karaoke in Ulaanbaatar, and tobogganing off the Great Wall of China – two things we didn’t know were on the bucket list until they were done.
5. I lost my pyjama trousers, that I bought in Peru years ago, somewhere in Russia or Mongolia. I’m not over it.
6. Hong Kong is way too expensive for tight backpackers, but the Star Ferry ride, for around 30p, is pretty cool.
7. Volunteering has been a rewarding and worthwhile experience; it has also been frustrating and draining at times too. I’ll miss my class, if not the lesson planning.
8. Eating Phnom Penh’s famous “happy herb pizza” on a school night was a bad choice. As was going to the very bizarre, expensive and freaky North Korean restaurant here – maybe being it’s not a bad thing that there aren’t many of them outside of North Korea.
9. Packing our bags is an art form.
10. After everything, we are still very happily married!

Still happy!

Experiencing everything so far, and having everything else to look forward to, whilst still being on honeymoon, is awesome. Everyone should do it.

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Life as a (short term) Phnom Penh resident

By signing up to volunteer for 5 weeks, we also committed ourselves to being temporary residents of somewhere new. After 2.5 months of travel and spending no more than 4 days in one place, it was a relief to actually unpack our rucksacks and know where we were going to be for a while.

image

Phnom Penh, home of 2.2 million people, is definitely different from life in Falmouth! And actually a really fun experience, even for Sam who has never lived in a city and struggles with the occasional crossing of the Tamar to the big city of Plymouth!

The traffic is pretty crazy, but a lot of the architecture and wide boulevards are beautiful and there are some great local and western style bars and restaurants.

Our volunteer company organised us somewhere to stay – the wonderfully quirky Tattoo Guesthouse – which is like home now. It’s pretty near the centre of the city and is full of volunteers from all over the world. We have made some really great friends, even if most of them are under the age of 22 and we are the old married ones!

Phnom penh

Being able to stop for longer than a few days has given us time to do things that we normally like to do, rather than just see the sights. At home we love watching films and haven’t really seen one since we left to travel. So a trip to the community movie house The Flicks, was such a treat, especially the bed like cushions they provide as seats. We even managed to see a film without superheroes and with Zac Efron!

The Flicks Cinema

We’ve also spent a day at an outdoor swimming pool, played five-a-side football (Sam, not me), tried to go walking when it’s not been too hot and spent quite a long time trying to find good cheesecake. We haven’t found it yet, but we still have two weeks to enjoy our time as temporary ex-pats, and now that I’ve managed to get used to the shock of getting up at 6am for work every day, we will be trying to fit in as much stuff as possible.

Football

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Back to work for a bit

In our last 2 1/2 months of travelling, Sam and I have barely spent 10 minutes apart, so it was a very strange feeling to head off separately on our first days at “work” in Phnom Penh.

We originally decided that we wanted to do some volunteering as part of our year long trip to challenge ourselves and try something different. When we first arrived, we suddenly realised that we hadn’t really given too much thought about how much of a culture shock it might be. But getting to know the other volunteers in our hostel has been great and we’re getting into the swing of things now!

My volunteer placement is with an NGO called Farmer Livelihood Development (FLD) who provide agriculture training to rural people to help them develop their skills and improve their standard of living. I will be helping them to develop a marketing strategy.

After a 30 minute tuktuk drive to the office, I met with the CEO and Project Manager and  realised how strangely familiar many of the issues were to my job at Cornwall College Business in the UK. Hopefully that means I can do something vaguely useful while I am here, although at the moment it still seems like quite a daunting task.

On my 3rd day in the office they asked if I would like to join them for a trip toMondulkiri, one of the remotest provinces in Cambodia, to join in with a series of management workshops. The trip was for 5 days and leaving the next day, so it was a bit of a shock, but I thought  I’d better just go for it!

It was strange to say goodbye to Sam, but I got in the minibus – me and 17 Cambodians – and we drove the 350km out into a far corner of the country, which borders with Vietnam. The countryside is beautiful, very green and forested, and it’s not as hot as the city which is nice.

Mondolkiri

It was a fascinating experience to be part of a different business culture. The meetings were run very collaboratively and democratically, and although I can’t imagine meetings running in the same way back home (two hour lunch breaks,no shoes, meeting outside, clapping at the beginning and the end of eachsession) it was clear that everyone was very passionate about what they do.

Work

NGOs in Cambodia work in English, although all the meetings were run in Khmer. Everyone was very helpful at translating for me though and I was made to feel very welcome, especially by the two girls who I was sharing a room with.

We managed to have time for some fun as well, and visited Sea Forest (so calledbecause the hills of trees look like a sea) and Bou Sra waterfall.

Waterfall

I did eat an awful lot of rice, including for breakfast, but on the last night the girls had a party for me and managed to buy lots of western food – chips, fried chicken and bread! It was really sweet.

Sea forrest

I now have just over three weeks left to put my plan together, but have gotten to know FLD and my temporary colleagues much better. And although it was very strange to be apart from Sam and be the only foreigner amongst so many locals, it was a great experience.

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The working week

After 3 days in Kep, beaching, pooling and islanding, we moved on to Phnom Penh. The 3 hour bus journey took just under 6 hours, on some pretty awful roads – and seeing how roads are one of the few things the Cambodian government does for its people, the journey was a good indicator of their effectiveness.

Rabbit island

Phnom Penh has a fairly compact city centre, and from our guesthouse to the river is around 20 minutes walk. You can’t go more than 100 metres though without being offered a tuk tuk or moto – apparently one of the weirder western traits is that we like to walk places. The mix of French colonial style buildings and roads, crossed with the crazy pace and traffic of an Asian city give it a really interesting feel.

Central Market

Our home for the next 5 week (4 left now), is the Tattoo Guesthouse, a place for long term volunteers. It’s a bit rough and ready, and our room wasn’t the cleanest when we got here, but after. Laura baby wiped the walls and we unpacked it’s actually quite nice. The main problem is the lack of wifi in the rooms, meaning we have to go downstairs to use the internet – champagne problems…

Scrubbing

On our first Monday, along with 7 other newbie volunteers, we were picked up by the guys from Star Kampuchea to find out about our volunteer placements. The orientation day was quite fun, a mix of Cambodian history lesson, Khmer speaking practice and role play games about the placements. We also went to the Russian Market and bought mobile phones, and it’s quite novel to be using one again after so long. This day also gave us a taste of the Cambodian working practice as well, with a 2 and a half hour lunch break in the middle of the day! On the Tuesday we had a city tour, as well as visiting the nearby Killing Fields at Choung Ek. Nowadays people know all about the Khmer Rouge and the awful things that happened in the 70s, but actually going there and reading about things was very intense and disturbing. We also visited a Buddhist pagoda, where Law and I were the only ones not to pay for a blessing and a bracelet. Karma could get us for that.

Killing Fields

Finally, the Wednesday was supposed to be the first day at work… Except for me, it wasn’t. It was a national holiday, so no school! No such luck for Law, so while I took it easy, she went to work at the NGO Farmers Livelihood Development. They offer training to people in rural communities and Law is working with their marketing person to develop a strategy, which she describes as weirdly similar to Cornwall College. She can write more about it next time, but some highlights include a couple of long meetings entirely in Khmer, and a weeklong trip to the countryside!

I started work on Thursday, and my school is called the Center for Children’s Happiness. It’s an orphanage attached to a primary school, so after a morning of teaching ABC and saying ’hello’ a lot, I got asked to work with an older group of boys who need extra English. So, from 7am to 11am I have 10 or 11 teenage lads to teach English and Maths too, before they start High School at 1pm (after another 2 hour lunch break). I’ve only done a few days, and it’s both exhausting and fun. The school is half an hour away so I get a tuk tuk at 6.30, and their English ability ranges from excellent to poor, so it’s hard finding things to keep everyone engaged. There isn’t a Khmer translator either but one of the boys is older, and his English is very good so he has essentially become my assistant. During the breaks, he asks hundreds of questions about me, England and anything else, and writes down everything I say for extra practice.

My classroom

After an afternoon of working with the younger ones, I get home at just after 5pm, which is just about the longest day of the volunteers here. Law is starting at 7.30, whilst a lot of the others tend to work from 8 or 9, have a long lunch break and then finish by 4. I did sign up for teaching English, but I’m secretly jealous of the volunteers in the other orphanages whose days consist of play, nap, four hour lunch, play and then home!

The school run

Laura is currently on her trip in the countryside, and doesn’t get back until Friday. It is bizarre not being together after not doing anything separately for months, and while her phone signal isn’t great (she has to climb a hill in the middle of nowhere), she is having a good time, and Mondulkiri is one of the more beautiful but less visited provinces. I know he’s on standby, but Mr. Bower doesn’t need to do a ’Taken’ rescue mission yet. It’s another day off for me today (lots of holidays here), so I’m heading out shortly with some of the other volunteers, whose youth only annoys me intermittently!

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