The darker side of life in Cambodia

These posters can be found all over Siem Reap


and I’ve been approached three times so far by the so-called ‘baby milk mothers’.  They are usually around the busiest part of town in the evening with a baby strapped to them.  They approach and say ‘I don’t want money – just some milk for the baby.’  They persuade you to go to the supermarket to buy expensive powdered milk, and after you’ve left, feeling that you’ve nobly helped a mother and baby, she returns the milk to the shop and she and the shopkeeper share the money between them.  The babies are often drugged to keep them quiet, and local ex-pats believe that the women are being controlled by a mafia-style gang, who drop them off every evening to roam the streets.  The women don’t always have the same baby with them, giving rise to the suspicion that they rent the babies, and have to bring in enough money in an evening to pay the rental charge and to make a profit.

There’s a group of Australian students in the hotel at the moment who are studying sexual trafficking in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, including the ‘virginity price’.  Cambodian men believe that sex with a virgin will bring them good health and a woman’s virginity price is anywhere between $600 and $1,500.  Often the young women don’t want to do it, but their parents tell them to, and parents in Cambodia must always be obeyed.

The girls who sell their virginity often find that it’s not just a one-off transaction, and they find themselves working in the sex trade in the many bars and clubs in town.  Similarly, girls are sold into prostitution by their parents because they simply can’t afford to keep them.

Cambodia’s also well-known as a destination for child sex-offenders, and these tend to be foreigners, not Cambodians.  The British organisation that I came through insists on a police check for all their volunteers, but it would seem that not all organisations are so rigorous.

I went to the landmine museum yesterday, and learnt the story of the man who started it.  He was a child soldier with the Khmer Rouge, then defected to the Vietnamese army and laid thousands of mines throughout his military career.  Once the war was over, he made it his mission to clear as many mines as possible and to set up a home for children orphaned by land mines or maimed by them.


Land mines were laid over a period of twenty years by the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese, and it is estimated that there could still be 5 million in the ground.  The number of people injured by land mines is decreasing every year, but Cambodia has the highest number of amputees per capita of any country in the world, and the presence of landmines prevents people from working the land, increasing poverty and hunger.


Some of the museum finds are displayed in cabinets with explanations, while others have been made into more artistic installations.


The Cambodian attitude to disability is that it is the result of bad karma, and something to turn your back on.  Grace House has the only disability unit in the province and the children there had often been locked up by their families before, and hidden away – and one child was found abandoned by the motorway.  These children are safe and cared-for at school, but I know that the staff worry about what will happen to them when they become adults.

The Big Luck Project trains disabled people to enable them to earn their own living, they have a series of workshops and a shop to sell the finished products.


This blind man works in the textiles workshop, with disabled women on the machines.


This man makes wooden statues.


This is a student painter who is learning by copying other artists’ work.

Western run and/or financed organisations can help to some extent, but the Cambodian attitude towards disability needs to change before significant progress can be made.

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That incontinent feeling again

There have been quite a few torrential downpours this week.  They don’t last long and the sun soon comes out again, but things do get rather damp.  Tuk tuks in particular are not very waterproof – they roll plastic or fabric covers down the sides if it starts to rain, a bit like putting a cover over a buggy – but it doesn’t keep a monsoon out, and the seats are always damp.  So after you’ve been sitting down for a couple of minutes you start to feel decidedly moist, and even though you’re warm and moist, which has got to be better than cold and moist, it’s not particularly pleasant and is an unwelcome reminder of what may well be in store in years to come.

At school some children don’t come in when it’s raining hard, while others don’t seem to mind the rain at all.


Some go for conventional methods of staying dry


While others are a little more creative.


When the rain starts coming into the classroom, we simply move the desks out of the way and carry on.


The  children wade through the water to get into the classroom, and the teacher puts a cloth on the floor for them to dry their feet on before they sit down.


This water was well over ankle deep, but they just ploughed through it.

Ironically, we’re doing the topic of seas, rivers and lakes at the moment in the Incredible English textbook, so they have a lot of water-based vocabulary to draw on.

We had a typing lesson in the computer room on marine life, and everybody typed away about dolphins jumping and playing in the water.  All except one boy, and his dolphins were having much more fun.


At break time they dash out to buy snacks from a stall outside the gate.  One popular option looks like cellophane with red grains sprinkled on it.


But nobody seems able to explain exactly what it is; I only know that it’s not sweet, and is possibly made from rice.

The children in the reception class are given a snack at break, and watermelon is a popular option.



The boys love playing football at break – their hero is Ronaldo, pronounced in such a strange way that I didn’t know who they were talking about until they wrote it down.


Even the less sporty boys get in on the act by making their own table football sets.



You press the piece of paper down so that it unfolds and moves the ball … ingenious.

The American students left, and we had a class photo


Luckily this was the morning class and not the afternoon class, or there would have been a photo of a riot.

As an example of what I mean:

here is the morning class happily enjoying their week’s library lesson



and here is the afternoon class, the same day.


As usual, it had descended into a free-for-all, with half of them brawling and the other half cheering them on.

But they did work sensibly and make some lovely paper lanterns on Thursday


and I was hopeful that we might have turned the corner – but we were back to unarmed combat again on Friday, so I think that Thursday was just an aberration.

On Friday the monthy rice delivery came.  The school provides rice for families who can’t afford to buy enough to eat, and there are several in my class whose parents are on the rice list.  The school also provides bicycles for children who live too far away to walk – but not for those in the younger classes, who have to hitch a ride with their older siblings.


There are about ten parents who come to pick up their children after school.  All the rest, no matter how small they are, make their own way home.




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Breakfast gadgetry

There was great excitement at breakfast today – well from me, at any rate.  I walked into the dining room to be greeted by a brand, spanking new coffee machine … and it works perfectly!  Chay, the assistant manager, told me proudly that they’d spent $4,500 on it.DSC_1666

It’s the sort that grinds the beans before making the coffee, and it has an Italian-sounding name – a definite improvement on the urn that dispensed coffee in the mornings up until now.

Breakfasts are pretty good here in the hotel.  There’s always a selection of tropical fruit –


– the purple dragon fruit has become a favourite since I arrived.

And thanks to Cambodia being a former French colony, there are passable croissants


and sliced baguette.


This last item is the source of many early morning problems for me.

I am very fond of toast for breakfast – and they have a toaster here – a large 4-slice one made by a reputable manufacturer.DSC_1571

The problem with the toaster is that it shoots the bread out so powerfully when it’s cooked that the small slices of baguette ping all over the room.  Because this is not a throwaway society, the toaster has probably been repaired many times, and another ex-pat suggested that they may have put the spring from a motorbike kick-stand into it, which would explain the velocity with which the bread leaves the toaster.

I have tried several ways of dealing with this issue, and none are entirely successful.  Trying to catch the toast in mid-air is very difficult, especially if there are other guests milling around the buffet counter.  Jamming your plate down on top of the machine as soon as you hear it pop up is more successful, but it does occasionally backfire and the toast shoots off the bottom of the plate at an angle and ricochets off the walls.  It’s hard to look nonchalant while this is happening and other guests are staring at you, with their own breakfast lying meekly on their plate.  I’m wondering whether heavier bread might be a better solution – perhaps I could weigh it down with something, or jam two slices in together so that they’re too squashed to propel themselves skywards, or invest in a butterfly net to catch it in mid-air.

I was complaining to some other volunteers about the toaster, and was told in no uncertain terms that I should consider myself fortunate to have access to a toaster at all, even one that gives every impression of having been crossed with a catapult.  So great is the problem that the ex-pats page on Facebook is full of tips about how to make toast without a toaster – the favoured method being dry fried in a frying pan.  But I am assured that this tastes nothing like proper toast; the only advantage being that it does stay in the pan once it’s cooked and doesn’t hurl itself across the room, kamikaze-style, leaving a trail of crumbs behind it.


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Cooks in tuk tuks


I’ve been to a cookery class.  A local hotel runs half-day classes which start with a visit to the market with the chef.

She bought some of the ingredients for the meal we were going to cook.


These are banana flowers, used to make a salad.

No part of the animal goes to waste – vegetarians, please look away now –




and I always thought pigs’ tails were curly – these look disturbingly like fingers.

With no refrigeration, flies are a problem and so the stall holders wave a bag on a stick around in a desultory way, trying to shoo them off the meat – but with a million flies and one bag, it’s not very effective.


What I thought was a washing up bowl –

DSC_1614– turned out to be a nifty device for shredding coconut.


You bring your coconut to the market and this smiley lady will crack it and grate it for you, whizzing it round and round on the protuberance in the middle of the bowl.  She’ll also soak it to make your coconut cream, or you can take the grated flesh home and do it yourself.

Shopping done, we went back to the hotel to cook lunch.


First we had to remove all the baby bananas from the banana flower, as we only wanted the leaves.

Then we assembled the ingredients for the banana flower, chicken and shrimp salad.


and for the fish and coconut curry


and then we chopped, sliced, peeled, grated and pounded.


This is the Khmer curry paste made from lemon grass, galangal, fresh turmeric, garlic, shallots and kaffir lime leaves.  My cooking partner and I had made a wimpish request for no chilli, otherwise it would have been much redder than this.


A chicken wandered through inquisitively as we were hard at work … she wouldn’t have done if she’d known what we were cooking.


The curry is called amok, and is one of the most famous Khmer dishes.


Here is the finished meal – the curry, the salad and a spectacular pyramid of rice.


Followed by sweet potato and coconut pudding.

We were very impressed with our meal – we’re either very talented Khmer cooks, or the chef did most of the work.

I have the recipes, a certificate rating my efforts as excellent and copious notes from the class – so you know what you’ll be getting for dinner the next time you come.




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The Khmer Relief Spa

I decided to indulge in a massage, and the Khmer Relief Spa came highly recommended.

When I arrived I was given iced jasmine tea, with a lotus flower looking very zen in a little bowl on the tray.  I was then invited to choose my massage, and opted for the anti-stress release, advertised as ‘a healing therapy massage’ with a ‘therapeutic touch’.  Just what I need, I thought.

The massage room itself was even zenner, with low lights, soft music and a large massage bed.  There wasn’t simply a face-hole cut into the bed, like the beds I’m used to; there was an extension at the top of the bed with a large face-hole and a padded surround.  Very comfy, I thought as I lay face down.  Then I noticed the bowl of lotus flowers in water on the floor underneath the hole, so I could admire them during my massage.  How lovely, I thought – and that was the last positive thought I had for quite a while.

I realised that the masseuse was clambering up onto the bed with me, and while I couldn’t actually see what she was doing, I’m sure she was doing handstands up and down my back; I can’t see how else such a tiny woman could exert so much pressure.  I bit the padding and tried not whimper.

Then I felt oil on my back.  Ah, at last!  This must be the therapeutic touch I’ve been waiting for.  But no, she put all her weight on me again and started slithering up and down my back.  As she got closer to my shoulders, my neck was being pressed into the rim of the face-hole and I felt as though I was being garrotted.  If she slips, I thought, she’ll push my head right through the hole and they’ll have to call the fire brigade to get me out.

The lotus flowers failed to take my mind off the pain, in much the same way that the pictures of tropical fish stuck to the dentist’s ceiling never lull you into thinking that you’re snorkelling on a coral reef rather than having your teeth drilled.

Finally she pulled the towel right up to my shoulders and walked away.  Thank God, it’s over, I thought – but she was only retreating to take a run up and land on my back again for some more pummelling … and a towel is no protection against a determined onslaught, I can assure you.

She did eventually leave the room, after sixty very long minutes, and I staggered to my feet, put my clothes back on with trembling hands and tottered downstairs.  I was put into the recovery room with hot tea, fruit and more lotus flowers until I felt strong enough to walk unassisted to the door.

As I left, I suddenly realised the significance of the name Khmer Relief Spa … it refers to the feeling you get as you leave, having survived a Cambodian massage.

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A spot of culture

Whilst I was busy getting lost the other day, I happened upon a shadow puppet show being put on in the grounds of a local restaurant by some students.



They had written the show themselves, and were performing it to raise money for their school.

In a more conscious effort to learn more about the local culture, I went to the Cambodian Cultural Village, which turned out to be a cross between Legoland and Disneyland.  There are small villages in a variety of styles typical of the  different regions of the country, and a series of  cultural shows to watch throughout the day.

We saw a traditional wedding ceremony, where the bride looked less than thrilled with the choice of groom.


Followed by some well-toned and half-naked young men playing the Khmer drums.


We made sure we got a front seat for this show.

The grand finale is a tableau showing the battles of one of the most famous kings, with a backdrop of Angkor Wat which is dramatically revealed halfway through the show – although we did have a bit of an idea what was hidden behind the huge curtain.


The judgement tunnel featured a series of punishments, some of which I heartily agreed with –



– and others I wasn’t so sure about.


I managed to gatecrash an Apsara dance performance in a local hotel – cheaper than a visit to the Apsara dance theatre.


This is the golden mermaid dance.


And these are the fisherfolk, skipping about merrily with their fishing baskets.


Then the beautiful royal dancers.

I foolishly agreed to have my photo taken with them at the end –


– and if you’ve ever heard Joyce Grenfell’s sketch about Lumpy Latimer, you’ll know exactly how I felt.

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How many monks can you fit in a tuk tuk?

A trip out has given me the idea for a new business in the UK … hammock bars.

I went out with some of the staff at the school, vaulting onto the back of a motorbike as if I was born to it, and we headed out of town for the day.

First stop was a fishing lake, with beautiful pink waterlilies.    DSC_1508

After you’ve caught your fish, you can relax in a shady hammock while they cook it for you for lunch.

I tried out the hammock


and very comfy it was too.  But we weren’t fishing and lunching, we were moving on to another popular local relaxation spot – West Baray.  A baray is a reservoir, and this one was built to siphon off the excess water from the moat around Angkor Wat, to stop the temples from flooding.

We settled ourselves into hammocks for a bit of R and R.


It costs approx 55 pence to rent a hammock for the day – obviously my prices will have to be a bit higher in England, but even so, I’m sure they’ll prove extremely popular and offer excellent value for money.

We lolled around admiring the view


until it was time for lunch.  There’s a barbecue stall just outside the hammock bar


and we ordered a whole chicken and some quail, with rice.  They come with chilli sauce, or pepper and lime to make your own sauce.


Then a fruit seller came around with coconut, watermelon and lots of other fruit that don’t seem to have names in English.


I went for a walk along the road after lunch and noticed a crowd gathered under a tree.  They were watching a monkey who was high up in the branches glaring at them.


A young boy started throwing ice cubes at it – perhaps it’s a local custom – so I moved away as I’ve heard several stories of people being bitten by monkeys and having to travel miles to get a rabies shot.

I went down to the lake and tested the temperature and it was like bath water; I’ve never been in such warm water that wasn’t artificially heated.


It’s a bit brown, but I think that’s the colour of the sand, rather than anything noxious.

Back at the hammock bar, the children of the owner were having fun.


The two little girls are in school uniform, because the government schools operate on a Saturday.  The uniform seems to be the same in every school – navy skirt or trousers, and white shirt.

There was even someone’s spare uniform drying on a pole among the trees.


The cost of the whole hammock experience – four hammocks for a day, plus barbecue lunch for four, was £9.13.

As we were leaving, a tuk tuk arrived loaded with monks –


– and the answer to the question is six.  We’ve only ever managed five, so they obviously don’t mind getting a bit cosy together.






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Misunderstood crocodiles

As I finish school at three on a Friday, I decided to go on a jaunt afterwards and visit something nearby.  I was investigating the possibilities and came across the crocodile farm, which advertises ‘crocodiles of various sizes and dispositions’.  I found this intriguing because I’d been led to believe that all crocodiles were of the same disposition i.e. highly disposed to creep up on you, drown you and then eat you.

I was quite tempted to go – if only to see the friendly crocodile, the remorseful crocodile and the vegetarian crocodile – but it hadn’t been very well reviewed on Trip Advisor (perhaps the friendly, vegetarian crocodiles have all wasted away or been eaten by the remorseless, carnivorous ones), so I decided to go to the lotus farm instead.

After the usual ‘yes, I know where it is’, turning into ‘no, I don’t know where it is’, we eventually found it on the road out to Tonle Sap Lake.  Despite the lack of rain this week compared to last week, the river has risen considerably.


This house needs its stilts today, after a long spell of being on dry land.

We also passed quite a few cricket traps beside the road.


Some local entrepreneur obviously trying to corner the local market in fried crickets.

The lotus farm was set up to provide work for local women, and to bring poverty and the luxury goods market one step closer together.  Lotus fabric is soft, light and breathable – and it’s almost entirely wrinkle-free … excellent for someone like me suffering from ironphobia.

You can see the lotus fields from the window of the spinning room.


The stems are harvested by boat four times a day, and they pick one tonne a week.

Once the stems have been washed and had the thorns removed they are bundled up for the spinners to get to work on.

There’s a large room with about eight women sitting at long, low tables.


They take a handful of stems and cut around the edges, then pull them apart to extract the fibres.


They stick the fibres onto the table, and then repeat the process, sticking each set of fibres a little further along the table until they reach from one end to the other.


Once they have a full table’s length of fibres, they wet them and roll them to produce thread.


The thread is then coiled into a basket at the end of the table , all except a little bit which forms the beginning of the next section, and the next lot of fibres are stuck to it to make another length of thread.


Apparently the skill lies in joining the fibres so they make a regular, continuous thread with no imperfections, or it will break when it’s woven.

Each one of these ladies produces 250 metres of thread a day, and a jacket requires 1,200 metres, and will keep one spinner in work for two months, as it all has to be done by hand.

The weaver will then produce one metre of fabric a day, so it is a laborious process with a high price tag.  They currently employ 30 people and aim to give work to 500 within 5 years, supporting women’s empowerment in Cambodia.

I did a bit of research and found a jacket on sale for $5,600, so while these women are now above the poverty threshold here thanks to their spinning, the gulf between them and those who buy the jackets still seems immeasurable.

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Celestial planning permission


You can see what look like small shrines on poles outside buildings all over Siem Reap and the surrounding villages.  These are called Neak Ta and the tradition dates from pre-Angkorian times ie before the 9th Century, when people had animist beliefs.

It is important to build one before you build your house, to ask the spirits if this is a good place for you to build … a sort of request for celestial planning permission.  Then you need to look after it and put out offerings to keep the spirits housed and happy.



Some, in the villages, are quite rough and ready, and obviously home-made –


– while others are very elaborate, and can cost up to $5,000 dollars, which is an absolute fortune over here.


It is important not to incur the wrath of the spirits, so some people try  to keep their Neak Ta dry in the rainy season.


Most people in town seem to buy theirs from the Neak Ta superstore, and there are quite a few on the road out to the school.


They come in a variety of colours, but yellow appears to be the Neak Ta choice among the cognoscenti.

Some people seem to have spent more on their Neak Ta than on their house.


and some people’s Neak Ta seems to last longer than their house.

DSC_1554This one is standing next to a pile of stones which are completely overgrown with creepers, but even the foliage seems wary of angering the spirits, and is staying away from the spirit house.

And, human nature being what it is, some people feel that a gold spirit house with carvings, statues, ornamental balustrades and four gold pillars is not enough, and add a few extra decorations of their own.


I’m sure that these people would be attaching a neon Santa in a hot-air balloon to the front of their house every December if they lived in England.



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A disturbing discovery

Today I made a disturbing discovery.

As if running the country wasn’t taxing enough, our esteemed Prime Minister has another job; she’s moonlighting as a teacher at Biff and Chip’s school.


All I can say say is that she makes a bit more of an effort when she’s in Parliament, and actually she scrubs up pretty well.


It’s not just me who finds the escapades of Biff and Chip tedious.  A boy fell asleep in the lesson today, which is a first for me.  He was so deeply asleep that when I picked up his arm and started tapping his head with it he didn’t stir.  After a bit more prodding he finally staggered groggily to his feet and stumbled outside to wash his face to wake himself up.

The children quite often disappear outside and then reappear a moment later with their head and face dripping.  I always thought that they were pouring water onto their heads to cool down, but now I realise that it’s a strategy to avoid being sent into a Biff and Chip induced catatonic stupor.


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Another day, another dollar

Much as Garrison Keillor always began, ‘Well, it’s been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon’, I could always start ‘Well, it’s been a hot week in Siem Reap.’

Despite the heat, the children race around just like children everywhere.

These girls play rope-jumping before school, and can jump it at incredible heights by flicking it with their toes and then twisting over it like a cartoon contortionist.


I’ve been more ambitious with my art teaching, and we progressed to paints this week to produce pictures of the fish in Tonle Sap lake.




And my maths is coming on a treat.  This week we tackled fractions


and while I’m fairly sure I got them all right (there’s no answer book!) I’m a bit hazy on explaining how to do it.  Luckily if I tell them their answer’s wrong, they just accept it and don’t ask why.

One of the brightest little boys in the morning class arrived with his head shaved on Monday.


This is the tradition when there’s a death in the family, and he explained that his 21 year-old brother was killed on his motorbike last week, when a car ran into the back of him.  I don’t know whether he was wearing a helmet or not, but a lot of them don’t.  This little chap has now taken to sitting with James, one of the American students visiting this week, so perhaps feels that James is a substitute older brother.

As the school was set up by a British couple, they have a child protection policy, which is apparently quite unusual over here.  They gave me a copy to sign, but it was rather difficult to decipher as it’s been produced by someone who obviously thinks that using the space bar is an unnecessary indulgence.


I’m starting to learn a few words of Khmer, and it’s a salutary lesson for a language teacher, as we can sometimes be a bit hard on kids who have trouble with pronunciation.

I wanted to learn a few essential phrases, like ‘be quiet’, ‘sit down’ and ‘don’t be silly’, particularly for use with the afternoon class, and some of the sounds are very difficult.  I can’t hear exactly what sound they’re making, and when I think I’m imitating them exactly, they howl with laughter at my mispronunciation.  One sound, which is like half a swallow right in the back of the throat, is totally impossible and I’ve given up on it, because it makes me look and sound like someone who’s just accidentally swallowed a gobstopper.

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It’s just not cricket …

I took a trip out to the spice garden, where I was the only visitor and the staff were all far too busy to take any notice of me.


So I wandered around, enjoying the huge number of butterflies everywhere.  There were a lot of pepper vines – Cambodia is famous for producing very good quality pepper – and they were just coming into flower.


I’ve seen pepper growing in India, and I know that the vines creep up trees in the wild, so they’ve built them some shade here to replicate their natural habitat.


I saw some other very interesting plants


If anyone wants to make a plea or a swam leat, let me know and I’ll bring you some back.


Any guesses as to what this might be used for?

Finally I came to this rather strange contraption –


– it’s a cricket trap.  There’s a light fixed to the side which attracts the crickets at night.  They fly into the polythene and then drop down into a pool of water at the bottom and can’t get out again.

I am reliably informed that I could collect two kilos of crickets a night from one of these traps.  So if I invested in a wok and some oil, I’d be self-sufficent in fried crickets for the rest of my life – what a tempting prospect.

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In which I star in the remake of Tomb Raider


In full male midlife crisis mode again, I leapt onto a vespa and headed off to the temples at Angkor Wat.


Not Easyvespa, although the machines were all bright orange.

I turned out to be the only person on the tour, so I had a private guide for the day, which was wonderful – although he was distressingly fond of taking cheesy photographs.


As you may see from this photo, I have developed a new hair-related issue … helmet hair.  Due to the heat, sweat, chlorine and sunshine my hair could in no way be described as glossy, silky or sleek, and I can only manage one of three looks:

  • helmet hair
  • hat hair
  • Worzel Gummidge hair

It’s quite a trial in the mornings, deciding which look I’m going to go for.

And it probably explains why I stood forlornly at my window in the tower


while all the handsome princes walking past thought ‘No way am I climbing up her hair.’

We visited several temples with huge carvings and fantastic tree roots, before finishing up at Angkor Wat itself.


The conical tops are shaped as lotus flowers, which symbolise many things for both Buddhists and Hindus, including purity, creation, strength and rebirth.

This is such an iconic place that even the monks were whipping out their mobiles to take photos.


The walls of the temple are covered in bas-reliefs in exquisite detail, mostly recounting the story of the many wars fought by King Suryavaman II.


There are also carvings of the Apsara, or royal dancers, which form the sort of Page Three light interludes amongst all the stories of death and glory.


In today’s democratic Cambodia these dancers are no longer restricted to performing for royalty, and even plebs like me can pay to go and watch them.

Outside the temples there was a band playing.  All the musicians were landmine victims trying to earn a living.  Cambodia was so heavily mined that it still has no-go areas, particularly near the borders, and it will take years and years to detect and remove them all.


On the way home I was taken to see another musician who makes his own instruments.


This is a two-stringed vertical fiddle called a tro u.  He offered to play it for me, and immediately broke into Auld Lang Syne, somewhat bizarrely.  I wonder if that’s the first time it’s been played on a tro u, or whether it forms part of the regular repertoire of Khmer musicians.





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Investigating monks’ laundry and menopausal nuns

I visited the pagoda across the road from the hotel today.


I’ve learnt that the difference between a temple and a pagoda is that there are monks at a pagoda and not at a temple.  I’m also starting to recognise some of the characters that appear on the temples and pagodas.

This is Naga, the seven-headed serpent who sheltered the Buddha from the rain when he went out to meditate for seven days and forgot his umbrella.


And this is Garuda – not an airline, as I thought – but the mount of Lord Vishnu, part man and part bird.


I wandered around the back of the pagoda and saw a pile of saffron robes in need of a wash


and around the corner was the washerman.


It has to be a washerman because women aren’t allowed to touch monks, or their clothes.  The only women allowed to touch a monk are his mother, his grandmother and his older sisters, and if he can’t persuade any of them to do his washing, then he has to find a washerman.  This chap is scrubbing the clothes with soap and a scrubbing brush on a stone slab.

The he hangs them out to dry.


These two ladies, sitting having a gossip in the shade are nuns.


Nuns shave their heads, and often their eyebrows too, to show that they have rejected earthly ideals of beauty.  After the menopause, nuns dress entirely in white, but pre-menopause they wear white on the top and black on the bottom – possibly for practical reasons, but that wasn’t explained by my Khmer colleague.  All I can say is, that the nun on the left, flaunting her fertility, must be a lot younger than she looks.

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The school party

On Friday we had a party – in fact we had two parties, one for the morning classes and one for the afternoon classes.  The party was funded by a group of student physiotherapists from Australia who have been working with the special needs unit for three weeks.  All the children came in wearing their party gear, and I can now confidently inform you that denim is this season’s party must-have in Siem Reap.


We started off with games – some traditional Khmer, such as the scarf game –


– and other more international games, like tug of war


and good old musical chairs


and the (rice) sack race.


After the games, there were refreshments – soft drinks and rambutans – and all the children lined up to collect some.  They don’t like giving sweets to the children because of the poor state of their teeth, but sugary, fizzy drinks can’t be good either


and I dread to think how many artificial additives are required to make that lurid shade of orange.DSC_1135

My class were having a really good time.


Next it was time for the dancing.  It’s traditional to dance around a table in Cambodia, in the same way that it’s traditional to dance around a handbag in England, I presume.  They go round and round the table making very elegant movements with their hands.


But there was also some less traditional dancing.  Here are the cool dudes


and the disco babes


Nancy from California lead the Macarena, with the Aussie physios as her backing dancers.


But the gamblers in the corner couldn’t be persuaded to get up and dance

DSC_1152They’re the ones who’ll be propping up the bar in years to come.

I learnt a traditional dance, with a lot of leg swinging and foot shuffling, and showed it off on Saturday evening, much to the amusement of a group of older women sitting nearby …  oh well, I suppose I would have laughed if they’d all got up and started Morris Dancing.





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Not lost in translation, just lost

I’ve spent my whole life getting lost – I have a terrible sense of direction and never know where I am on a map – so it’s very refreshing to be living in a town where everyone else is also permanently lost.

It’s not difficult to get lost in Siem Reap – even if you have a gold D of E award or a Girl Guide map reader’s badge.  There are no addresses as such, not all the streets have names, and nobody has a house number.  If you want to direct someone somewhere, you have to pick a nearby landmark and use that as a point of reference.  For example, the business card for my guest house gives the address as ’80 metres west of Caltex’, which is the name of a large petrol station.

Some of the streets have Khmer names such as Wat Bo Road, and other names are far more imaginative like Chocolate Road and Funky Lane.  Some are simply numbers – Street 53 etc, and others are just functional, like Drain Construction Road.

There is no postal delivery service here – quite obviously – if you’re expecting a letter you go to the Post Office and rummage through the box of letters to see if it’s arrived.  Given that this is a town with a population of 230,000, they can’t be great letter writers or this system would descend into total chaos.

I’ve learnt to take a map and a google image photo whenever I go anywhere, because when you ask a tuk-tuk driver if they know the place, they always say ‘yes’, which usually translates as ‘no’.  I’ve also learnt never to walk anywhere unless it doesn’t matter where I end up; if I try to get anywhere particular on foot, I invariably get lost.

This evening I broke both of these rules when I went to a photo presentation and dinner in a restaurant across the river.  I looked at a  map and decided that the restaurant was very close to the market I’d been in, so I’d walk.  I should have known better.  Half an hour later, having shown my map with no street names to several tourists who all thought we were at different locations, I had to admit that I was completely lost.

So when I heard, ‘you want tuk-tuk?’ I was desperate enough to believe the driver when he said he knew the restaurant.  We went round in circles, and also in squares – and possibly triangles too.  He asked a street seller, who sent us off in one direction, and then a tuk-tuk driver who sent us off in the opposite direction.  He phoned his brother, and first he spoke to his brother, and then I spoke to his brother, but his brother didn’t know it either.  We stared at my map, and then at his map, hoping for divine inspiration, and he stopped hopefully outside several other restaurants, but I refused to get out at just any old restaurant as people were waiting for me at the Tangram.  Finally, after about 25 minutes, whether by divine inspiration or luck, we found it.  I felt compelled to give him a very large tip, and now he wants to be my tuk-tuk driver for ever.

On Sunday evening I’m going to a dumpling restaurant with no name.  Apparently it has the large red Angkor beer sign on the front … like 90% of all restaurants here, and it is in a street with no name.  The street is, however, between Street 21 and Street 22, so I’m wondering if it is Street 21 and three-quarters.  I may find myself in a strange Cambodian school of magic and have to send all my future blog posts by ibis post – look for the attachment if you see one circling around your head.

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Maths and English, enlivened by a green bun

Cambodia’s not the country for a lie-in.  This morning I was woken by the wedding music – getting used to that – and by a gecko who sounded so close that I was convinced he was about to jump into bed with me.  If you’ve never heard a gecko, they make the strangest sound, which reminds me of the talking dolls I used to have as a child.  If you imagine a talking doll with very loud hiccups, that’s what a gecko sounds like.

Maths today – multiplication, division and perimeters – which I coped with very successfully, if not very neatly.


and some of them did considerably better than me in that respect:


The children all stand up to answer questions, so during a question and answer session they are constantly bobbing up and down, which must be very hard on the knees.  Teachers are all called ‘Teacher’, pronounced Teachar, which is abbreviated to ‘char’, and when they are working on something difficult you hear ‘char! char! char!’ constantly from every corner of the room, as though we’re all at some Strictly-inspired ballroom dance class.

There was great excitement at lunchtime, because the lunch cafe has invested a bun oven and is selling bright green buns – so I just had to try one.


It tasted like a warm, slightly chewy brioche, and I wasn’t quite sure why it was green, because it didn’t taste green.  Another option in the bun warmer, on the top shelf, is something that looks exactly like a pallid pork pie – I may try it next week if I’m feeling reckless.


The reading books for the English classes are from a British reading scheme and all feature three children, whose names are Biff, Chip and Kipper.  Who writes these books?  Have they ever come across children in England called Biff, Chip and Kipper?  Two of them are boys and one’s a girl – would you have any idea from the names which one is the girl?  ‘Mum and Dad, I’d like you to meet my new girlfriend Biff/Chip/Kipper.’  Ridiculous.

Another problem with the English books is that the copies we are working from aren’t the originals; they’ve been copied many, many times, and you can barely make out what most of the pictures are.  This is quite a disadvantage when you’re learning a language and trying to match the words with the pictures.  So, rather like the Eskimos and their many different words for snow, the Cambodian children think that English has an awful lot of words to describe black, blurry shapes on a grey background.

If you didn’t know what a horse was, you’d never work it out from the picture at the bottom of this page:


IT this afternoon was a typing lesson – via a programme called Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing.  Mavis is a rather fearsome looking woman, and in her advertising material looks like a sales rep about to make a presentation – probably for toothpaste as she has a very wide, very white smile.  So that’s another name to add to their ever-growing list of typical English names – Biff, Chip, Kipper … and Mavis.

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Stalking a monk and gatecrashing a wedding

I nipped out this morning to collect my laundry ($1 a kilo, washed and ironed) and on my return saw a monk standing silently outside the entrance to the guest house.  I was very taken by his robes with perfectly co-ordinating umbrella, but didn’t like to photograph him face on, so I followed him to see where he went.


He went to the next house, where a woman came out to give him alms, and then he chanted prayers for her.

As he moved off, I noticed what looked like a marquee being erected in the middle of the very narrow road just beyond the hotel, and I could also hear the tell-tale music alerting those in the vicinity that a ceremony is in the offing.


I resolved to return after school to see what it was.

When I got back the wedding was in full flow.  The marquee had been furnished and decorated, and gating erected at one end.


Apparently, if they don’t block off one end, motorbikes often drive right through the middle, weaving between the tables of guests.  But you can’t really blame them, as the marquee takes up so much room in the narrow road that they have to squeeze between it and the fence in order to get past.


Having inspected the marquee, I poked my head inside the house, where I could hear music and saw the bride and groom on a dais at the front, flanked by bridesmaids and young men, being filmed and photographed by all and sundry.  I decided that they wouldn’t notice one more photographer, and casually wandered in.


They say that if it rains on your wedding day, the marriage will last.  If that’s true, then this bride and groom will be glued together for all eternity, as there was the most torrential monsoon downpour about half an hour later – I imagine that the water must have been flowing between the guests’ feet as it ran down the road.


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The purple Pringle

A couple of months ago I watched a programme where the sprightly septuagenarian Angela Rippon skipped around the world looking for the secret of eternal youth.  She found it on an island in Japan, where the average age of the inhabitants is about 150, and the secret ingredient in their diet is the purple sweet potato.

Rather disappointingly, not even Waitrose appeared to stock the purple sweet potato, only the bog-standard, non-life-expectancy-enhancing orange variety, so I was resigned to foregoing the chance of releasing my inner Peter Pan.

But that was before I went to the local supermarket in Siem Reap and discovered …


… the purple Pringle!

Not only is it the magic ingredient, but it’s cooked and packaged as a convenience food – what’s not to like?

My only issue now is how to get a lifetime’s supply shipped over to the UK.  If anyone would like to go halves with me on renting a container ship, please let me know.

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