Another handicraft mastered

To add to my already impressive panoply of skills, I have now learnt how to weave a mat from dried water hyacinth.  I hope you’re impressed.  If you’d ever seen the needlecase I made for my mother at school, you’d be astonished.

We went to Tonle Sap, which is the largest lake in south-east Asia.  Just to give you an idea of the size, at the end of the dry season, in late April, it is 2,500 square km, increasing to 16,000 square km by the end of the rainy season in October.

We visited one of the floating villages, which has a population of 8,000 all bobbing about on the lake, to see what life is like for these lake dwellers.

For a start, they have to move house between 5 and 10 times a year as the water levels change, and when the water’s very high, they have to tie the house to a strong tree because it’s also very windy.  Moving house doesn’t involve emptying the loft and hiring Pickfords though, because you simply move the whole house by towing it around the lake until you find a location that you fancy.


I don’t know if you can see the ropes attached to this house, but it is being pulled along by a couple of boats.

Just like in any village, there are shops


sale boats


and the occasional floating garden


but these are apparently very costly to install, so not many people can afford the luxury of home-grown vegetables.

Hanging out the washing could be a problem


– you’d have to be careful that you didn’t drop it.

Our driver for the trip to the floating village looked so young that I asked how old he was.


He’s sixteen, and earns $40 a month as a boat driver.  He decided not to go on to high school because he didn’t want to leave home and have to go to Siem Reap to study, so he took a job that puts him well below the poverty line of $2 per day.

We transferred onto paddle boats to visit the village – you can spot the tourists because they’re the only ones wearing life jackets.


We met a chap who breeds fish and sells them to a wholesaler when they’re big enough for $1.75 a kilo.  He’s feeding them on a mixture of rice and tiny fish that he catches himself in the lake.


Not everyone in the village is poor, however.  We met a woman who breeds crocodiles and clambered around on top of the cages to have a good look at them.


Here’s my foot, just to prove that I was only inches away from a hundred large crocodiles in a cage that only had a few holes in the wire, where sharp teeth had obviously snapped at it a little too vigorously.

Not all the crocs were huge though –


I thought these were rather cute.

The owner has 300 crocs and can sell each fully grown one for $1,000, so she’s a very wealthy woman by Cambodian standards.

Then on to the water hyacinth weaving studio.  Water hyacinth is one of the fastest growing plants in the world and can grow 1cm a day.  It’s extremely invasive and is clogging up the lake.DSC_3214

The boat is ploughing a channel through the plants as we make our way across the lake.

Luckily, someone discovered that when it’s dried it’s extremely strong yet pliable, and excellent for weaving.  So a group of women run a weaving studio, making baskets to sell and teaching hopeless tourists like me how to weave.

Here is the water hyacinth drying out before it can be used.


My tutor showed me how to weave under and over the framework, and how to tie in new strands without a visible join.


She was very patient and undid my mistakes without rolling her eyes or giving me pitying looks.


I could only do it right if I chanted ‘over, under, over, under’ constantly, which must have been very irritating for everyone else – but finally it was finished –


and I had my very own hand-made souvenir to take home.

We passed a lot of families out for a spin as we travelled back


and some fishermenDSC_3220

and I learnt a few of the rules for driving on the lake, such as


if something bigger than you wants to get past in a narrow channel, pull into the side and cling on to a plant while it passes you.









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Beach body ready

On a jaunt to the beach – Otres near Sihanoukville –


I suffered another violent assault – this time it was called threading.

I was approached by two smiley ladies as I sat reading on the beach, and they offered their services, assuring me that afterwards I would be ‘smooth like baby bum’.  How could I resist?  So they got to work on me – one leg each – making scissoring movements with the twisted cotton, deftly ripping all my body hair out by the roots, and only drawing blood once or twice.

Then they turned their attention to my face – not just eyebrows, but forehead, cheeks, jawline … I’d never realised before that I was quite so hairy.  They would stop, look closely at me, run their fingers across my skin, tut loudly and then go in for the kill once again.  When I was bright red and stinging all over, they produced a tiny mirror so that I could admire my new hairless face, one centimetre at a time.

Then Sam decided to go for some male grooming in the eyebrow area.


For obvious reasons, I don’t have any photos of my own threading experience, but I imagine my facial expression was similar to his.

But whatever those ladies did, it certainly worked, because I met my new best friend soon afterwards.  I was still in my chair on the beach and she came up to try to sell me a bracelet.  She was very chatty and asked my how old I was.

‘Fifty-seven,’ I said.

‘Oh!  But you so young!’ she said.  ‘My mum, she fifty-three and she old, old.  But you no!  I think you thirty before you say me.’

So she is now officially my best friend, with the threading ladies in second and third place.

However, a serious deterrent to my new beach body readiness is the seafood down here.

This jolly lady sells delicious giant prawns


and you don’t even have to move out of your chair to buy some.

The restaurant just down the track does wonderful seafood platters with barbecued squid, prawns and barracuda.


We’ve devoured several of these since we arrived.

Oh well – I shall just have to resort to the age-old trick of muted lighting whenever I want to show off my beach body.




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Trail Blazers



By no means everyone in Cambodia has access to clean water, and this has a massive impact on families and the community.  Water-borne illnesses are a huge threat and children often get ill and can’t attend school and parents can’t work because they’re looking after them, or the parents themselves get ill and can’t work, which has an economic impact on the family.

At school we have two bio-sand filters which provide the drinking water for the children.  They were installed by an organisation called Trailblazers, and two other volunteers I’ve met are working there at the moment, turning up every day for work in tough leather boots and spending the day humping concrete around and using pneumatic drills, so I asked them about what they do.

The filters are made of a moulded concrete casing which is made first at Trailblazers HQ and transported to the site where the filter will be installed.  Then the filter is put together on site.  They fill it with big stones, then small stones, then sand, and put a perforated cover on top to stop the sand from rising up when the water is added.


The gravel and sand act as a physical filter, but the bacteria in the sand also act as a bio-filter and remove bacteria and viruses and make the water safe to drink … and all for only $60.

I thought this building of filters was the only thing that the volunteers do, but apparently if there is no well in place for the filter, they have to make the well too – and the one they made on Wednesday took seven hours to drill.  The thought of two 21 year-old graduates spending seven hours with a pneumatic drill is quite alarming, but they didn’t seem to be maimed or disfigured in any way.  They have to sink 16 copper tubes on top of each other in the ground – each tube is 1.5 metres high, so that’s a pretty deep hole.  Then they remove the tubes and put a plastic pipe in and build a pump to access the clean well water.


This is our school pump, which runs to a tap on the wall, which is used to fill large plastic cans to pour into the filter.


The well water is poured into the filter and drips out slowly – apparently there is a copper pipe which forces the water out from the bottom of the casing. The only thing to remember is not to let the sand dry out, because then you kill all the good bacteria.


The pump at school is also used to fill this large barrel with water.


This water is used to flush the loo and for the all-important bum gun.

Each well provides enough water for 3-5 families, and one filter per family gives plenty of water.

Trailblazers gives the family information on the importance of clean water and hygiene.  This is also much-needed, as we learnt when we visited the floating villages on lake Tonle Sap, where the loos all empty directly into the lake, and the villagers drink the water.  They boil it first, but even so they often get ill.  A charity provided them with small water purifiers, but they were suspicious of them and prefer the traditional method of boiling the lake water.

We all know about the importance of clean water for health, and worry about getting a dose of Montezuma’s revenge on holiday, but I’d never before considered the long term financial and educational problems for people who are permanently beleagured by water-borne diseases.

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Evidence of insanity … or the perils of too much free time

Like a dog returning to its vomit, I went back to the Khmer Relief Spa for another massage. The lure of the 50% discount proved irresistible – the triumph of parsimony over pleasure.  Happily, I can report that this time my experience was much less violent and I came out bruise-free.  I was even able to open my eyes and look at the lotus flowers under the table


as my eyes weren’t screwed tightly shut in agony.

I went for the aromatherapy massage this time, on recommendation, and it was nowhere near as violent as the stress release massage – although there was still much more pressing and pummelling than I would have expected.  There were a few other strange movements too – like moving my cheeks upwards and outwards, as though she was a horse trader checking my teeth.

The problem with a massage abroad is that you never know what’s coming next, and you’re constantly waiting for the next karate chop or handstand … even if it doesn’t happen.

The whole spa is lotus central


because they are such a zen flower, I suppose.  They open them up artificially, folding each petal back to show the yellow centre,


or just folding a few back to retain the classic lotus shape, as in the bowl in the top photo – all very labour intensive, compared to bunging a bunch of daffs in a jug, which is my floral centrepiece of choice.

Other than indulging in a spot of masochistic massage, there are plenty of other things to do if you have too much time on your hands in Cambodia.

For example


buying geckos to match your scarves and then creating an installation.

or –


going to a bar with lounging-style seats


and then sitting and photographing your feet



taking photos of branded face masks – this lovely one is by 3M



taking a particular interest in the equal opportunities policy of building sites and photographing all the female navvies mixing cement, digging trenches and climbing up particularly rickety scaffolding.

Oh well, it could have been worse – I might have developed a taste for ‘happy pizza’, or got a tattoo, multiple piercings, a gigolo – my little peccadilloes seem harmless in comparison with what some other people get up to.

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Two surprises and a shock

I’m surprised that I continue to be surprised by things that happen here, if you see what I mean.  It’s all very well to expect the unexpected, but if you don’t know exactly what you’re expecting, it’s hard to anticipate.

In the weekly computer lesson this week, the children were learning to compile a table using Word.  The task was to complete a list of pupils in the class, with name, gender, date of birth and occupation  – pretty straightforward I thought, until I saw this one


When I asked why she’d put 00/00 for Ream’s date of birth, she explained that he doesn’t know when his birthday is.

So I went around and looked closely at the other tables and saw this one.


Three of these children don’t even know the year they were born, let alone the date.  I tried to imagine an English child of twelve-ish not knowing when their birthday is, but I couldn’t.

My next surprise came on Friday, after I had been teaching this class for six whole weeks.  One of the boys in the class turned up for school wearing a pair of jeans with stars embroidered on them.

I’d put a picture of this boy into a blog post several weeks ago, showing him playing with his home-made table football set.


Anyway, I wondered about this very different look that he was sporting on Friday


and so I asked the Khmer teacher, very tactfully, if the child in the third row back was a boy or a girl.

‘Oh!’ he said. ‘It’s a girl – but I’ve noticed that you say “him” when you talk about her.’

As I was thinking to myself, why on earth didn’t you tell me, I heard one of the girls in the back row say ‘lesbian’  very clearly … these kids can’t string an accurate sentence together, but they can follow an adult conversation and come up with the word ‘lesbian’ … which isn’t a cognate in Khmer, because I checked.

There have been several animal-related incidents this week.

Firstly the children brought me this baby gecko

DSC_2521who seemed to feel very much at home on my ipad.

Then I acquired a large green admirer, who sat on my pencil watching me while I supervised the art lesson.DSC_2643

The solar system art lessons were a great success, incidentally, and we ended up with some lovely pictures; some more accurately drawn to scale than others, but everyone was proud of what they had produced.

This is the morning class displaying their finished creations


and this is the afternoon class.


Nowhere near so many finishers, but just a few had made a real effort, and seem to be much improved in general after six weeks of TLC from the Bardenator.

The shock came on Friday when I was on my own in the classroom while the children were in the playground.  One of the girls came rushing in and shouted, ‘Snake – teacher!’  Then, just in case she hadn’t made herself clear, she shouted, ‘Teacher – snake!’

Oh my God, I thought.  There’s a snake in the playground … and I’m going to have to deal with it.

I got to my feet, which suddenly felt very heavy, and followed her out of the classroom and into the playground.

‘Snake, snake!’ she said, and pointed to the resources room.

My first cowardly instinct was to shut the door of the resources room, and pretend I knew nothing about a snake in there.  But then if someone went in there and got bitten, I’d be morally responsible, I thought.  So I walked gingerly over to the resources room and said to Phanna, ‘Tell me what the snake looks like.’

‘She means Snakes and Ladders,’ came a disembodied voice from the office next door.  ‘That’s what they call it over here.’

I was so relieved I positively skipped into the resources room to find the game.





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How to recycle your used bullets


Adding to my many talents, I went on a jewellery workshop at Ammo.  Their USP is that they make beauty out of something ugly, and at the same time give training to young Cambodians in jewellery design.

I went with Alyce, another volunteer, and we spent a morning making a necklace out of a bullet.

First you choose your bullet, and then it is softened using heat.


We weren’t allowed to do that bit, as the process seems to be rather dangerous.  The contraption is made from an old fire extinguisher, a pair of bellows and a bottle of petrol.


You put the tube into the petrol, and then pump the bellows up and down with your foot while the jet of heat shoots out from the burner at the top, and everyone prays that there won’t be an explosion.

Meanwhile, we were practising our designs on a piece of metal to get the hang of the tools.


Alyce decided to go for a miniature design of the Cambodian countryside, while I went for something a tad more abstract.

Once the bullets were soft, we put them through a kind of mangle to flatten them out.


This is Maddy, out tutor, showing us how to mangle a bullet.

Once it was flat we were away with our designs, hammering and chiselling like real professionals.  The next stage is sanding the whole thing to make it smooth and shiny.


After that, it’s pringled – a technical term I’ve just invented meaning cooked in salt and vinegar in a slow cooker.

Then they were ready for us to take home.

This is Alyce modelling ‘Cambodian Countryside’.


And this is ‘Harmony of Nail Clippings’


I may not give up the day job just yet.


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Once upon a time

Yesterday I was on library duty – sorting books, sticking in loose pages and so on.

Whilst the English section is full of page-turners where Biff and Chip go to a car boot sale or spend the morning watching paint dry, the Khmer section was far more interesting for a barang like me.

The books seems to fall into three categories: firstly those which underline Buddhist beliefs, such as the story of the Tiger and the Parrot.


There is no softly-softly approach when describing wicked behaviour.


With a picture of the grilling parrot, just in case you didn’t quite clock the meaning.


But don’t worry – the tiger understands about karma and refuses to sully his own soul with violence.


And it all ends happily ever after … well, for the tiger and the parrot, at any rate.


Secondly there are traditional tales, such as this one –


or the tale of the doormat wife and her selfish husband –


Instead of berating him for buggering off and leaving her, she welcomes him back like the Prodigal Son.

But unlike the Prodigal son, husband gets a nasty shock in the middle of the night


when his wife starts decomposing in front of him.


I’m not quite sure what the message is here – other than ‘don’t hide your anger or you may find yourself decomposing and full of a thousand worms – hit your husband with a saucepan instead or poison the delicious food and you’ll feel so much better.’

The third category are cautionary tales, such as this story of a foolish boy who climbs over barbed wire and ignores the warning signs to retrieve his footballDSC_2542

and steps on a landmine


with predictably disastrous consequences.

He ends up in hospital


with the other casualties of war.  But it’s not all doom and gloom –DSC_2558

– he sets up an amputees football team and scores a goal.

The book ends with a message from the boy to the reader.  I can’t understand the writing, but am in no doubt as to what he is saying.


And then this story is about the perils of superstition and ignorance.


The family believe the man is ill because he has made the spirits angry.


But city-dwelling son returns home and explains that holding a party for the spirits won’t help Dad as he actually has malaria.


Metrosexual son takes dad to hospital, and all is well.

One book I particularly liked was a variant of Aesop’s fables.  This story is about a snail and a hare, and I love the illustration where they are both getting arsy with each other and the snail shouts ‘OK, so I’m legless!’  DSC_2549

And I couldn’t quite work out which fable this is,DSC_2528

where the tortoise angers the lion by ’emitting three pieces of his excrement’ in front of him, but it sounds like a jolly good read and contains an excellent piece of advice … emitting excrement in front of people is likely to make them angry, so don’t do it.


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Investigating the language

Khmer people have great difficulty with the sounds ‘th’, ‘sh’ and ‘w’ in English.  And they don’t pronounce the end of words in Khmer either, so when speaking English they fall into two groups – those who don’t pronounce the ends of English words, and those who end practically every English word with an ‘s’, leading to sentences like ‘cans you sees the suns in this pictures?’

I’ve been working very hard with my class on pronunciation, sounding my ‘th’ so vehemently that I spit all over the kids in the front row, but it’s quite difficult to get them to pronounce it correctly when the teacher doesn’t.  However, I do think that the better ones are improving, which is gratifying.  And in any case it makes a change from rolling exaggerated ‘r’s in a French classroom, sounding like an advert for a new antiseptic gargle.

I heard one of the children ask the Khmer teacher a question which quite clearly ended with the word ‘anglais’.  I asked him what it meant, and he explained that it is the Khmer word for ‘English’.  As Cambodia was a French colony for 90 years, it’s not surprising that they have adopted some French words, athough some of them have been subjected to what is known as ‘khmerisation’ and the pronunciation has altered slightly.

Other words I’ve heard at school are:

  • aleurmang – German
  • pawm – apple
  • kilo – kilometer
  • kado – gift
  • cartable – school bag
  • num pang – bread
  • kaafee – coffee
  • menouy – menu
  • kat – card
  • bich – biro

The word for a French person is ‘barang’, pronounced to rhyme with ‘meringue’.  As that’s nothing like francais, I assume it has come from some more perjorative Khmer word, but it has come to be very widely adopted.  Nowadays it is used to refer to all Westerners, and the expats even use the word to refer to themselves.

The written language is very difficult – there are 23 vowels and 33 consonants – apparently it’s the longest alphabet in the world.  The reception class chant them several times a day while the teacher points to each letter, but they all sound and look so similar that I haven’t begun to work out how to write the simplest thing.
This means I am a teacher:

and this is the phonetic spelling:
khnhom chea krou bangrien

And this is a very important sentence:
អ្នកគឺជា ក្មេងប្រុស ល្អ
anak kuchea kmengobrosa  l
It means 'you are a silly boy'.

Luckily I don't have to use it very often because my class have learnt two phrases perfectly - 'silly boy' and 'lazy boy'.  These are then extended to 'no, teacher, no lazy boy - he lazy boy' etc.

If I've done anything during my time teaching here, it's to develop a group of very smug girls who are extremely conscious of their superiority over their male classmates.
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Another confession

I’ve become a groupie.

Kevin, an American guitarist and singer, plays every Monday in Belmiro’s, and I’m always there – waving, singing along, requesting songs and generally behaving in an embarrassing way.

Kevin has a broad fan base.


Here he is with Jess who’s 21.


And this is Rene, a 69 year-old Cuban, who grew up in Brooklyn and is a Vietnam veteran … as tough as they come.  He even has the same backwards cap and follows Kevin practically every night, not just on Mondays – and I reckon that if it’s OK for Rene, then it’s OK for me.

Kevin is a human jukebox; he knows thousands of songs, and he plays without words or music.  When someone requested a Beatles song, he said that he knows 107 songs by the Beatles … impressive.

I’ve bought his album to download at home, but I won’t be able to send him any fan mail, as post is pretty much non-existent here.

I do sometimes feel a little like Mrs Robinson on our regular Monday outings –



But it’s well worth it – I haven’t had such a crush on a singer since I grew out of Donny Osmond.

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Getting my own back on the crocodiles

I’ve been to two unusual local meals recently.

The first was in the village, at the house next door to the school, and was hosted by Momm, who works in the special needs department at Grace House.

The whole school staff was invited to lunch, and it was a special lunch for Momm’s mother-in-law who lives with them.

We arrived to find that they had hired special covers for all the chairs, and brightly coloured tablecloths, and they’d obviously been cooking since dawn.



I asked what the feast was in aid of, and was told that it’s an old people’s feast.  As people get older and start thinking about their impending death, they often decide to hold this particular feast to atone for the wicked things they’ve done in their life.  It’s a very important occasion, and all family members must come, regardless of how far away they live.

I was intrigued and asked what sort of wicked things can be wiped off the slate by holding this feast.  They said that it could simply be killing a chicken to feed your children, which doesn’t sound terribly wicked to me, but Buddhists believe in Karma, and killing anything at all means you won’t make it to the realm of the gods, and you may end up being reborn as a cockroach.

Then mother-in-law herself came slowly down the stairs to say hello to us.  Here she is with Momm.


I scrutinised her to see whether she looked as though she was atoning for a chicken she popped into a curry many years ago, or for three husbands buried in a rice paddy somewhere, but she wasn’t giving anything away.

The second meal was at a barbecue restaurant – very popular here.  You get a small brazier full of burning coals on the table, with stock in the bottom, and a raised area for barbecuing above it.    DSC_2336

They put a large piece of lard on the top of the barbecue, to grease it, and then away you go.


The idea is to take a tray and help yourself to meat, seafood and vegetables, and then cook them yourself at the table.

DSC_2290Vegetables and shellfish are boiled in the stock, and meat and fish are grilled on the top.


Some of the ingredients are more tempting than others.



These clams turned out to be black inside, and they don’t open regardless of how long you cook them, so you have to fight them every step of the way to get them apart and then it’s difficult to tell whether you’re poisoning yourself or not.

I decided to concentrate on decreasing the local crocodile population, slice by slice.


I can now reliably inform you that, in order to get the best out of your recently butchered crocodile, you must briefly marinade the meat before barbecuing, and above all, do not overcook it or it takes on the texture of a warm flip-flop.

Halfway through our meal there were shrieks from another table and the roar of a fire extinguisher, as one enthusiastic diner decided to barbecue his friends rather than the many other ingredients available.

With so many coal braziers in one room, it gets very smokey and they occasionally turn the fans off  (apparently to clear the smoke??)and you can hardly see the other side of the room.

We discussed the possibility of opening such a restaurant in Europe, with a whole room full of free-standing braziers of hot coals, and men threading their way through the tables carrying these braziers full of hot coals topped with a pot of boiling stock.  We decided that the regulations would be so draconian that you’d probably have to compromise with an electric sandwich toaster screwed firmly to the table, and every piece of food would have to be independently tested with a probe before anyone was allowed to eat it.  The downside of this freedom to give yourself third-degree burns if you so wish, is that there’s probably nobody to sue in order to pay for your skin grafts.



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Hell-raisin’ again


Thankfully my male mid-life crisis only seems to strike at weekends, so I haven’t yet strutted into school wearing a large medallion and a Hawaiian shirt.

This weekend it was quad biking.

Annette and I were given a quick demo and then a five-minute test.  I passed and was deemed safe to go out on my own, but Annette had to have an instructor sitting with her for the first half-hour, as her steering wasn’t up to scratch.  Feeling smugly superior, I got ready to go.


We sped off through villages, splashing through puddles, hurtling over bumps and roaring past slower vehicles … such fun!

Lots of children were out fishing


presumably hoping to catch something for lunch.  They usually rushed up and started waving – they didn’t seem too surprised to see two mad Englishwomen careering around the Cambodian countryside on quad bikes.


If you’ve never driven a quad bike, I can assure you that it’s not difficult, but it does give you very hot ankles.

And then you have to keep the accelerator pushed forward with your right thumb, and after a while your right hand starts throbbing and then goes numb – rather like the sensation I get when I use a power-washer for a long period of time, cleaning the patio slabs.  There are no indicators and I became very proficient at indicating left with my left arm, but couldn’t work out how to indicate right without taking my thumb off the accelerator and coming to a standstill. So I compromised by looking carefully in all directions and then swerving right at the last minute if nothing was coming.

We saw several men ploughing their rice paddies with push-along ploughs.


and these ladies were sitting in a wedding marquee which stretched right across the road, preparing vegetables.


I drove through the middle of the marquee – I had to, there was nowhere else to drive – and stopped to take a quick picture.

The door-to-door fabric seller was out in one village we drove through, smiling despite carrying all that weight around in the heat.


Then we stopped at a Pagoda.  This one is over two hundred years old and is still brightly painted.


We weren’t the only visitors … I think this is an outing organised by the Athlete’s Foot Sufferers’ Society.


We looked at the family vaults in the ‘churchyard’,


and watched them building a new one.


Under all that beautiful paintwork it’s just cement.

After two hours we were both ready for the advanced quad bike test –


standing up with one hand in the air … ok, so we were stationary, but even so, we’d learned some hardcore riding skills, and had the evidence to prove it.


I hear that Top Gear needs a new presenter …











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I am truly blessed

I have been blessed three times so far in Cambodia and have now started giving off a saintly glow – either that or my antiperspirant’s stopped working.

The first time was on a food tour, where we stopped for a blessing on our way to the food market.


It must have worked because I ate all sorts of things that we would deal with in England by getting out the Pest Control Department, rather than by getting out the deep fat fryer, and I survived relatively unscathed.

The second time was an altogether different affair.  We went to the Pagoda near the school in our lunchbreak, with one of the Khmer staff to act as interpreter.  We sat on the floor in front of an elderly but very jolly monk –


and gave him our offerings –


which he is putting towards a new roof for the Pagoda – are religious buildings the world over in permanent need of re-roofing?

He checked it carefully, just to make sure we weren’t pulling a fast one.


Then he tied a red braid around everyone’s wrist … a sort-of ‘I survived a water blessing in Siem Reap’ bracelet.


And we all went outside – past an ominously large water pot –


and sat on the steps.


We were advised by our interpreter to start praying, and as we did so, the jolly monk started chanting and hurling bowls of water over us.


and we got wetter …


and wetter.  He had a very good aim and excellent stamina for someone his age; he kept going for a good five minutes until finally, even he had to admit that we couldn’t get any wetter.


I then travelled back to school on Leung’s motorbike and made him and his bike extremely soggy.  But when we got back to school and walked in with clothes clinging and a puddle forming whenever we stood still, none of the children batted an eyelid; they’re so used to going out of the classroom and tipping water over themselves that a dripping teacher is no more remarkable than a dripping umbrella would be at home.

I was much more apprehensive before my third and final blessing – previous experience being such a marvellous tutor.  I removed my camera and as he started chanting, I sat and flinched, waiting for the dousing.  But he got out a sort of whisk and flicked water at us in a desultory fashion, and I escaped with a slight dampness around my head and shoulders – much more practical, but somehow less satisfying.



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Thank God for mini aubergines

Well, I’ve taught a couple of cracking science lessons this week – even the school director was impressed.  Perhaps I’ve missed my vocation after all.

I used great ingenuity, as the lesson plan to teach The Solar System required many spherical objects of different sizes, including a coriander seed and a blueberry.  Cambodia is famous for pepper, so I substituted a peppercorn for the coriander seed, but knew that the chance of finding a blueberry over here was about as remote as finding a bag of crunchy, fried spiders in the Crisps and Nibbles aisle in Waitrose.

So I wandered around the market, looking for inspiration, and discovered mini aubergines – so mini that they look more like small grapes – but ideal for my purposes.


There was one slight hiccup to begin with, as I assembled all the materials I’d brought from England.


The inflatable football, once inflated, turned out to be an inflatable hammer.


Ideal for hitting your friends – or –


or as a hilarious penis extension.

But we used an inflatable globe instead and away we went.


At least with Khmer speakers there was no sniggering about the size of Uranus.

It was wet playtime on Thursday.

DSC_2310When even a trip to the loo required an umbrella.


When the water reached the step into the classroom, all the shoes started floating away.


Then a little frog jumped into the classroom


and the children created him a raft made of a flip-flop, and he sailed off down the rainwater.


On Tuesday I arrived at school to discover that all the power had been switched off as Alan needed all the electricity in the whole school to fire up and test the machine he’s just built.


When I asked what it was, he explained that it is a machine to heat a bedroom up to 50 degrees C, and he had found a buyer for it.

I wondered briefly who was madder; the person who thought that Cambodia wasn’t hot enough and that it would be a good idea to invent a machine to heat your bedroom to 50 degrees, or the person who agreed to buy it.  Then he explained that it is a method of killing bedbugs and their larvae; you heat the room for four hours and it gets rid of them all, and a hotel wanted to buy it.  Apparently bedbugs are a real problem over here … hope my hotel has invested in one of these machines.

And these are the Ovaltineys –


enjoying the latest snack craze at school – you just eat the powder straight out of the sachet with a small spoon.

One of the expat staff left school to return to the UK this week.  She only ever wears green, so her staff all turned up in green too, for a Team Green photo.


And then she was presented with her leaving gift.


‘Well, I’m not sure what this is, but at least it’s green.’

It turned out to be a green Cambodian hammock – just the ticket for an afternoon snooze in a Surrey garden.

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The grass is always greener … or browner … or whiter

Going shopping is a very different experience here, as I discover every time I go out to buy something.

If you want some tanning products – something to give you that healthy bronzed glow – forget it.  Everything here’s all about being white.DSC_1865

Even international brands have a different slant over here.


In fact, it’s easy to buy shower gel with bleach by mistake as there’s so much of it, thereby undoing weeks of tan-building in seconds.


Revlon even promises to make you luminous white, which could be useful around here because the street lighting’s not up to much.

Petrol is on sale at pretty much every village shop.  It’s sold in old glass bottles – gin, Baccardi etc – in a rack by the door, and costs 75 cents a litre.


One of the teachers at school explained that they prefer to buy petrol at a petrol station, as you never know if this stuff’s been watered down, but there aren’t many petrol stations and they tend to be in town, so people just fill up in the village if they don’t have a trip to town planned or live too far away to make it economically viable.

A trip to the butcher’s is not for the faint-hearted.  On a recent tour around the market I asked what this animal was (dog lovers, please look away now).


I have been assured that fewer than 1% of Cambodians eat dog nowadays, and there certainly didn’t seem to be any takers for this one.

On another stall I saw this pig – or some of him at least –


He has a resigned expression on his face, as if he was saying ‘I just knew something like this was going to happen today.’

Another striking difference is that shopkeepers in Siem Reap don’t seem to feel the need to stay away during opening hours.



Whether you just help yourself and leave the money, I’m not too sure.  Call me picky, but I’ve tended to opt for sales staff who are upright and have their eyes open.

There are children everywhere in shops and at the market.  They spend the whole day with their parents toddling around amusing themselves.

This mum had a great way of keeping her baby quiet.


If you fancy a drink, this lovely lady in the village will make you a sugar cane juice.


She puts the stems through the machine over and over again – a bit like a mangle, I suppose – and then gives you a glass of the juice.


Even when it’s mixed with orange juice it’s terribly sweet, but then so are all their drinks – condensed milk is king here.

The Cambodians are great snackers, and there’s a huge variety of mini-eats to buy as you wander around.


Crunchy spiders for starters.  These weren’t on offer when I did my food tour, so I’ve yet to sample a pan-fried spider … I may save it for next time.


Red ants can be nibbled on the hoof if you feel a bit peckish, or if you can hold out until you get home, you can make beef with red ants, a local speciality.


This chap is busy steaming a big basket of snails.


They’re steamed with lemongrass and other herbs.  I tried one, but have to say that it wasn’t a patch on a French escargot with garlic and butter.

If you want to buy medicine, the locals still use the traditional doctor.  I met this doctor, whose knowledge was passed down to him from his father.


He has baskets of bark, roots and herbs outside his shop which he goes out and gathers himself in the forest.


He can make you up a bespoke prescription, or you can buy something ready-made off the shelf.


This young baby had just been having some mysterious treatment that involved drawing a cross on his head


I just hope it wasn’t connected to the crosses drawn on these eggs.


These are duck eggs with a baby duckling inside.  You take it home and cook the egg and then crack it open and eat the duckling – it’s a traditional Friday night treat for a lot of people, apparently.

It all makes a trip to Tesco seem very tame indeed.






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A visit to patisserie

The patisserie is just across the road from the school.


First thing in the morning they cook the cakes in special containers with burning wood on top and underneath.


The cook lifted the lid to show me the cakes sizzling away.


Then Grandma bags them all up and hangs them up and they sell them for 60 cents for a bag of five.


And jolly good they are too!

Next to the school there’s also a shop that sells the most delicious biscuits called caterpillar biscuits.


I think the name refers to the shape rather than any of the ingredients.


They are a delicate, crispy coconut biscuit, fatally moreish,


and only fifty cents a large bag – I have already discovered that resistance is futile.



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The correct use of the lavatory

It always surprises me what some people need to have spelled out for them.


I suppose the proprietors are covering their own butts by pointing out that if you slip inside whilst perched on the rim, you have only yourself to blame and no compensation will be coming your way.

I was unsure what the little hose in the picture, which is always on the wall next to each loo, was for at first …  although clearly not for my hair or my feet as the sign helpfully pointed out.


On enquiring, I discovered that it is known by expats as ‘the bum gun’.  The locals use it instead of loo paper, because the narrow pipes mean that all loo paper has to be put in a bin and not flushed away.

Ever curious, I pulled the trigger and a very forceful jet of water shot out.  I’m impressed that the locals can use it without:

  • a) yelping in pain or
  • b) emerging from the cubicle  dripping wet.

In some places there’s no bum gun and no flush mechanism, because there’s no running water.


In this case you scoop a potful of water from a container and pour it down the loo.


I wash my hands in it first, but I’m not sure if that’s what you’re meant to do.  In some places, however, that’s quite tricky.


These are the facilities in our lunch cafe.  The only place to put the bowl is on top of the loo – luckily I always have my trusty bottle of hand gel with me.


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red, sticky, boiled, fried, soaked

No, not a description of me – although it comes pretty close at times over here – it’s an indication of some of the myriad types of rice to be found in Cambodia.


I’ve become a bit of a rice expert over the past four weeks, and I now know that the average Cambodian eats between 500g and 1kg of rice per day, depending on their size, and a family of five adults gets through 1.5 tonnes a year.

They eat rice for all three meals a day, and sometimes snack on rice between meals too.  Cambodian rice is of excellent quality and grown without pesticides; Thailand imports Cambodian rice to eat, while exporting its own rice to Europe.

There are rice paddies everywhere in the countryside around Siem Reap, making everything a beautiful, vibrant green, and this is now the season for transplanting the rice from the nursery to the main fields so people are out in force tending their crops.


These farmers are pulling the young rice out of the water by the roots.  They then bundle it up


and cut the tops off.


Then he takes it to the main paddy field, while she takes the trimmings off to be recycled.


They plant out the young rice plants in the traditional way; you push your thumb into the mud and then put three plants into each thumb hole, spacing them apart to leave room for growth.


This crop will be ready for harvesting in about another four months.

As the temperature is pretty constant here, it’s water supply that determines how many rice crops farmers can grow each year.  In the countryside away from the river, they can only grow one crop, during the rainy season.  Near the river, they can grow two crops a year, and if you’re lucky enough to have land near Tonle Sap Lake, you can grow three crops a year.  And 85% of Cambodians are farmers, so that adds up to an awful lot of rice.

Eating rice is such a fundamental part of life here that there are five different verbs meaning ‘to eat rice’ and it depends on who you are talking to, as to which one you use.

  • To speak to a child, you use the word ‘see’ (don’t know how it’s spelt, but that is the pronunciation).
  • For young adults the verb is ‘nyam’.
  • To speak to an older person you must use ‘pisar’.
  • To speak to a monk, it is ‘chan’.
  • And in the unlikely event that you are ever speaking to the King about his rice-eating habits, the verb is ‘soy’.

Reflecting on this, the closest parallel I can come up with in England is alcohol.  Young people are unlikely to say to each other ‘would you care for an aperitif?’  And it would be considered highly inappropriate to say to the Queen, ‘get that down your neck, Ma’am’.  Different cultures, different priorities.

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A social faux pas

Leapt onto a vespa again yesterday … am now on first name terms with the owner of the company as I’m such a good customer.  We went out to explore the Cambodian countryside and I had a fantastic day, marred only by a slight social faux pas at lunchtime.

The day started with a visit to a family who collect sugar palm juice and make palm sugar.  One of the sons shinned up a tree and came down carrying a container full of palm juice.


The family either sell the fresh juice, which is sweet and slightly smoky because they smoke the wooden containers to keep the ants out, or they boil it down and make palm sugar.  It takes 20 litres of juice to make 3 kg of sugar, and the sugar sells at the local market for $1.25 a kg.

This family makes $7 a week from their sugar, and as there are 7 of them, this means that they are well below the povery threshold of $2 per person per day.  Their surroundings give an indication of their hand to mouth existence.


This woman makes her own baskets.  She goes into the forest to collect the rattan; she cleans it and strips it and then weaves baskets, which she sells for $1.  Apart from a distressing lack of teeth, she’s in a much better position than the sugar farmers.DSC_2253Her house is solidly built, and her husband wanders around smiling affably and showing off his well-turned ankles.DSC_2259

We went to a temple which also has a school – and there are more monks than you can shake a stick at.


These monks are learning a poem about the virtues of doing things thoroughly.


I just wish my afternoon class would be a quarter as attentive as this class.

I’ve decided that next time, I’m coming back as a monk.

We went inside the pagoda and there was a large crowd of local people receiving instruction from a monk.


But before their lesson, they had prepared lunch for the whole monastery.DSC_2184

When the bell rang the monks just wandered in and sat down to eat.


This is the chief monk, who kindly allowed me to photograph him.


I was impressed to see that he has not one, but two, mobile phones.  My tour guide was very disapproving.  ‘Things you can see on Facebook and Google aren’t suitable for monks,” he said.

The guide then took me to get my fortune told by a renowned local fortune teller, who told me that he had learned his art from his father.  He tells people’s fortunes and also sells atomisers full of special fragrance guaranteed to bring customers to your shop or bring your wayward husband back home.


I had to tell him the day and the date I was born and he stared at me and then made a series of signs on a whiteboard (a concession to modernity, I think) and told me some very accurate things about my past, which startled me, and predicted great success with a new venture from August to December this year … watch this space and I’ll report back on 1 January 2017, possibly from my yacht in the Bahamas.

We had lunch in a barbecue shack in a tiny village, prepared by a local cook, and started off with fried chicken which we ate with our fingers.  The cook then came out and poured some water into a bowl and put it on the table.  Oh good, a fingerbowl, I thought and promptly washed my fingers in it.  The cook looked rather surprised and went off to get another bowl for some more water.  It turned out that it wasn’t a finger bowl after all, but an ingredient for the fresh spring rolls which we were having next.  This is not quite as embarrassing as drinking out of the finger bowl, but it still marks you out as socially inept and unlikely to be invited to dinner by the upper echelons of Siem Reap.

My guide showed me how to roll a fresh spring roll, using the sticky rice paper wrap, soaked in the ‘finger bowl’DSC_2221and when he’d finished it looked neat and appetizing.


But the gods of table etiquette had it in for me by now, and I blame them entirely for sabotaging my attempt.


As we walked up the road after lunch, we were overtaken by an ox cart.


There were two oxen pulling it, and two bringing up the rear, and as it drew level with us, we could see that it was being driven by a very elderly man.


It seems incredible that these are still in use in the twenty-first century, but farming in Cambodia is not mechanised at all; everything is done by hand and without chemicals – not because they think that chemicals are bad, but because they can’t afford them.







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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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