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.



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.


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.

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.

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.





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.

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.





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.

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.

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.


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.

Computers, geography and rain

On Monday mornings the children all have to pick up the litter from around the school site.  The two different groups – the morning and the afternoon groups – each do it twice a week, and it really needs doing because Cambodia seems to be covered in plastic.  There are empty drinks bottles and old plastic bags everywhere, and there seems to be no recognition of the value of recycling and re-using.

Then it was the favourite lesson of the week … computers!  There is a room at the school with 17 HP20 computers, which a philanthropic Australian persuaded a company to donate to the school, and the children love them.  The families don’t have computers at home, and their government school, which they attend for the other half of each day, doesn’t either, so Grace House is very lucky to be able to give them this opportunity.

We had to balance along a narrow strip of low wall to get to the computer room because the ground on either side of it was flooded.


The first task was to type up the new words learnt last week.  I was interested to see that even in this different culture the boys and the girls have the same approaches to presentation as they do in England.

This is a boy’s list:


and this is a girl’s:


Using a computer is such a novelty that I even saw one 12-year old boy happily playing on Anna’s Nail Salon, painting the toenails of his e-clients in a variety of exotic shades:


Then came my first geography lesson, on the topic of South-East Asia, and I used the inflatable globes donated by Matron in our school boarding house.  They were very successful and helped me too, as I was none too sure of the exact location of Borneo, Taiwan and the Philippines … but I am now.



At the beginning of the afternoon class a girl walked in with the most enormous insect on her head, and nobody reacted at all, apart from me.  I briefly wondered what it would taste like fried in butter, but decided to settle for a photo instead.


It rained all afternoon, turning the school grounds into even more of a quagmire.  This is the view from the computer room – plastic shoes are essential here; they get left out in the rain several times a day.


On the way home I was able to observe the various solutions the locals have come up with for travelling in the rain.

First there is the rather fetching plastic poncho:


or the more stylish, but less practical umbrella:


And finally the raingear-is-for-wusses approach:


The rain is so warm that it really doesn’t matter if you get wet, although I’m hoping that trench foot is only a problem if you’re wearing army boots and not flip-flops.

In which I am struck down with mediatas limen discrimine

I have had a very strange, kafka-esque sort of day, involving both a strange awakening and insects.

I woke up this morning to discover that I had developed a full-blown male mid-life crisis (mediatas limen discrimine) and was desperate to book myself on a motorbike tour – ok, a vespa tour – of the night food markets.  Then when my vespa arrived, I was thrilled out of all proportion to discover it was red.DSC_0788I began by saying firmly ‘not fast’ to Sokay, my driver, and then I clung on to him as we whizzed through the streets towards the night market.  But I noticed that the other passengers on the tour had their hands by their sides or in their lap, and they looked much cooler than me, so I let go of Sokay and assumed a nonchalant expression, whilst clamping my knees around his thighs in a vice-like grip and jabbing him in the back with my camera.

The first stop at the market was the fruit stall,  where we tried all sorts of things I’d never even heard of, like spider fruit and jack fruit – and several others which didn’t even have a name in English.


Then we tried green mango served with sugar and chopped red chilli, which was very good.


We moved onto the next stall, where I did my bit to keep down the local insect population by eating  fried crickets and grasshoppers, and silkworms marinated in soy sauce and garlic.  The insects weren’t too bad, truth to tell, crispy and salty – you just pull the head off and then crunch away.


Then we moved on to some tiny fried frogs, eaten whole.


Then, after the tapas, we sat down on a blanket under a canopy for the barbecue.  There was sticky rice cooked inside a bamboo cane, roasted corn basted with coconut milk – and finally the meat … barbecued stuffed frogs.  They were stuffed with spiced pork, threaded onto skewers and cooked to a rich, golden brown.DSC_0840

I thought this was the main course, but it turned out to be merely the hors d’oeuvre, and Sokay and I then whizzed off to a restaurant, where we had cows’ intestine cut in strips (front right in photo) and served with a sauce of fermented fish with peanuts, chilli and lime, and beef with red ants (front left in photo).


We finished up at a rice wine distillery, where we tried eight different flavoured rice wines, with a selection of sticky rice and tapioca desserts.



I felt that I held my own very well, and I tried everything – unlike some others on the tour who claimed they were full up after a slice of mango and one tiny grasshopper.  Any one of the dishes on its own would have been fine, and I could probably tuck into a few silkworms again one day, but all the dishes together were a bit too much, and I staggered rather queasily to bed, vowing to stick to pizza for the rest of the week.

School lunch

School is morning or afternoon only, so in theory there’s no need to serve school lunch, but there are about twenty children at school who wouldn’t get any lunch if they went home, so there are two school cooks who make lunch for them every day.


They have a sort of stew with rice, and eat in one of the classrooms as there’s no dining room.

The volunteer staff walk up to the main road to eat at a little cafe.  It’s the sort of place I would never have dared to go on my own, but the food is freshly cooked and very good.  Lunch is eaten between 11 am and 12 noon, and at 11 o’clock all the pots of food are put on a huge table at the front of the cafe, and you choose what you want, then when it’s gone, it’s gone.


The food costs one US dollar for a main course with rice.


Khmer curry, which is sweet not hot, with chicken and vegetables.


Fish amok, which is fish with coconut wrapped in leaves to form a parcel and then cooked.

Both these dishes are delicious, and nothing has been as searingly hot as I had feared … yet!

Next, the Games Teacher …

My day started at 5 am today, with very loud, tinny, tuneless music playing somewhere nearby.  As it was still going on two hours later, I asked the staff at breakfast what it was.  They told me that for any type of special ceremony such as a wedding or a funeral the music is played for about three days.  This prompted two thoughts. Firstly, who on earth needs three days to get ready for a wedding? And secondly – it’s rather tough on the rest of us who haven’t been invited – couldn’t the guests just listen to it on headphones?

Anyway, I arrived at school only to find the same loud music blaring out there too.  A complete coincidence and a totally different ceremony – Fridays must be a popular day for ceremonies.  The school director told me that the people organising the ceremony turn the speakers away in the opposite direction so they don’t hear the music … very sensible, I thought.

But on the plus side, I was very cheered to discover that, as a games teacher, I would not be compelled to wear a very short skirt designed to show off my muscular thighs and then stride about wielding a hockey stick menacingly.  In Cambodia, games lessons include board games and jigaw puzzles, and since the field is rather soggy in the rainy season, more sedate types of game are preferred.  That suited me fine and we played bingo, hangman and did jigsaws with my morning group.


The afternoon class descended into the usual chaos, made worse by the constant music, so everyone had to raise their voices to be heard.  They didn’t want to play bingo, they wanted to play football, so half of them disappeared from the classroom and the other half scribbled aimessly on their whiteboards while a few random chickens pecked around outside.DSC_0775

The music also created havoc during the English listening test.  The sound system is tiny and not very loud; every child has to have it on their desk to hear it, so the test had to be played umpteen times as the machine moved around the room.  In the end I offered to read the transcript of the test aloud – gamely playing both roles myself, leaping from side to side as I changed character.  I don’t really think the children found my rendition any easier to understand, but it was far more entertaining.


The art lesson

Why did I ever think it was difficult to be an art teacher?  The answer to that is obviously propaganda and misinformation from currently-employed art teachers who don’t want the rest of us to find out what a doddle it is.

I turned up this morning in some trepidation for my first art class, consoling myself with the fact that as the classroom has no walls, I could at least run away if it all went horribly wrong.


I quickly produced my masterpiece on the whiteboard:


and they got it immediately AND understood all my drawings.  Then they set about producing their own with all sorts of things that they like (bees, butterflies, AK-47s) and don’t like (lions, snakes and bicycle accidents), and I was rather proud of their efforts.


When the afternoon class of horrors arrived, I immediately turned into The Bardenator – a name once given to me by some of my naughtier pupils – and spent the lesson alternately glaring and confiscating rubber bands, rubbers, string and everything else they’d rather play with than get on with their work.  And even this lot managed to produce some decent pictures.



So that’s art done and dusted … just geography, maths, science and games to go.

There’s a lot of choral repetition at school here, and with open classrooms there’s no soundproofing and you can hear every class around the school bellowing unintelligibly like some sort of under-rehearsed Greek chorus.  But at the end of the day they all chant the same thing in every classroom. ‘Thank you, teacher, see you tomorrow.  Good luck for you, good dreams for me.’ I think that’s rather lovely.


Grace House

I spent my first day observing at Grace House.  The first rule is: always remove your shoes before entering a room … including a classroom:


This is the easiest thing in the world to forget if , like me, you’ve spent a lifetime walking into rooms without giving your footwear a second thought.  I keep walking into a room and then shooting out again to take my shoes off – I can see now why everyone wears flip-flops; I don’t imagine there’s much of a market for Doc Martens in Cambodia.

Another surprise was the communal, compulsory toothbrushing session, with a good old spit-out into the gravel afterwards.  The class set of toothbrushes is kept in the classroom and the teacher doles out the toothpaste to each child in turn.  According to the project manager, these children come from families teetering around the poverty threshold which is 2 US dollars a day per family, so toothbrushes are not very high on their list of priorities.


The lesson I observed this morning was maths, and the children all got on with their work very sensibly.  They are 11-12 years old, and their English isn’t too bad.



But the afternoon class was quite a different matter.  A much larger and more lively group, I didn’t dare take any photos in case I provoked a riot.  They spent the lesson hitting each other with rulers and throwing pieces of paper around the classroom.  The rooms are all open on three sides, so the children can’t be contained, and one boy disappeared and then returned with the hose from a vaccuum cleaner, presumably in a bit of weapon one upmanship, while the poor teacher struggled to make himself heard.  It will be interesting to see how I fare with these horrors tomorrow when I teach my first ever art lesson.  I just hope I don’t get an overwhelming urge to jab one of them in the eye with the end of a paintbrush.

Discrimination against hedgehogs

I went down to breakfast this morning and noticed signs all over the guest house asking guests to be quiet, which seems a not unreasonable request, but also banning hedgehogs, which was frankly baffling and got me wondering whether the locals have a habit of smuggling hedgehogs into hotels:


When I asked about this I was directed to point 12 of the Hotel Regulations which states ‘Fruits with strong odor such are not allowed in the hotel’, and this picture is apparently not a hedgehog, but a very smelly fruit.  As this rule comes directly after the rule telling us that ‘Weapons or explosives are forbidden not to bring inside the hotel premise’, I can only assume that this fruit is highly dangerous.

I had my town orientation tour today and we got into Mr Vibol’s tuk-tuk and chugged past the pagodas, the cows and the bicycles to have a look at the town centre.  The market has piles of fruit I don’t recognise, and there are so many different types of rice, you could probably have a different one each day of your stay.



The eating out area is appropriately named Pub Street, but there is also Bug Street, where the speciality is Insect Tapas  – I’m very keen to go but think I’ll wait a few days to acclimatise before I visit.

Tomorrow is Day One at the Children’s project – I’ve been told today that my class has a lot of lively boys and that their permanent Khmer teacher is not good on discipline, so I’m wondering what I’ve let myself in for … so much for the manual that led me to believe that teachers are so highly revered that they’re practically worshipped over here.

The British Airways hotline to heaven

I’ve always known that there are three steps to heaven, but I hadn’t realised before today that British Airways was quite so closely involved.

I turned up at Heathrow with an extra suitcase full of all the toys and other materials donated by friends and colleagues for the children’s project in Cambodia, quite prepared to fork out the extra £65 to get it all over there. But when the check-in clerk put all the luggage through, there was no extra charge for it on the system. We agreed that BA must somehow know that this was excess baggage for a worthy cause, and not the sloppy packing of a woman who simply empties her entire wardrobe into suitcases rather than being selective about what to take.

We arrived in Bangkok in brilliant sunshine and boarded what looked like a cartoon plane, covered with pictures of palm trees, fish and star fish.

The cartoon plane in the sunshine
The cartoon plane in the sunshine

Unfortunately, it didn’t look quite so jolly when we landed in the pouring rain in Siem Reap.

The jolly cartoon plane in the rain

Mr Vibol met me in his tuk-tuk at the airport.

Mr Vibol and his Tuk Tuk

He was dressed in waterproofs from head to toe, and he handed me into the tuk-tuk where I sat gingerly on a very soggy banquette for half an hour while we toodled into town. Everyone seems to be on bikes or motorbikes – everyone except the cows, they’re just wandering up the street.