… ready to head off to Malaysia.
He’s hoping that reports of a plague of toad-eating snakes in Kuala Lumpur have been greatly exaggerated.
… ready to head off to Malaysia.
He’s hoping that reports of a plague of toad-eating snakes in Kuala Lumpur have been greatly exaggerated.
It’s all very well going native – eating in local restaurants, calling yourself a barang, feeling very superior as every new batch of holiday-makers arrives for the obligatory 3-day Angkor Wat pilgrimage – but there are times when you just want to let rip and be a total tourist yourself. So with that idea in mind, I have been releasing my inner tourist for the last week or so, since I finished my teaching.
When Sam and Alice arrived we visited some more temples – on vespas, of course –
only to find the place swarming with schoolchildren
on an art trip.
It makes a change from sketching courgettes and red peppers, I suppose.
I climbed a holy mountain with a waterfall and pools at the top, and found myself wondering why Cambodians always swim fully clothed – it just seems so bizarre.
An Austrian girl working over here told me that after work you can often see young people going for a swim in the large reservoir outside the town in full work dress – girls in blazers and skirts just plunging straight into the water – presumably the ride home on the motorbike dries them out again.
We went to Battambang, a French Colonial town, and were thrilled to see monkeys. The local shopkeepers were less thrilled about them, and one furious woman threw a bunch of keys at a particularly anarchic group who had just raided her peanut stand. Well, they’re not called monkey nuts for nothing, I thought. If it was my shop I would have kept the peanuts inside, possibly under lock and key, rather than outside piled up on a table on the verandah.
This monkey grabbed the palm leaf wrapping from Alice’s sticky rice cake when she put it in the bin.
and got a great deal of pleasure from licking every square inch absolutely clean.
This boy was looking rather forlornly into the undergrowth
trying to locate his bag of food that a monkey had snatched out of his hand. The monkeys sat a short distance away scoffing his snacks with a defiant expression, but he did manage to retrieve his can of coke – ring pulls are obviously monkey-proof.
Our guide took us to a pagoda which had a series of statues outside serving as a visual reminder of the punishments awaiting us in Hell, should we be foolish enough to commit any of the crimes that Buddha warned against.
The men with chicken heads had been cock-fighting, and I think that the man and woman about to be beheaded are adulterers.
I’m not sure what the two naked people climbing up the cactus have done – but I’m going to find out, and make sure that I never do it myself.
And this punishment – having your tongue ripped out with pliers – is reserved for lawyers and other people ‘who use their tongue for profit’ … at least Sam now knows what lies in store for him.
Our guide took us to a local restaurant, where the cook produced the meal working in very basic conditions
There was fish, chicken, soup, vegetables
but the fish was rather bony, so I surreptitiously slipped a bit of mine to the cat I had seen under the table. I suddenly felt a furry whoosh around my legs and when I looked –
there was a whole swarm, all waiting for the next bit of fish.
Then we rode on the bamboo train, which is huge fun. Your ‘train’ is a platform built of bamboo with an engine, and it runs along a single track.
Everyone sits on cushions, and the driver stands at the back.
If you meet someone coming in the opposite direction, whichever platform has more people on it is allowed to proceed. The people on the other platform have to get off
while the driver dismantles it, moves it off the track, waits for the fuller platform to go past
and then assembles it again.
It’s fun to do for an afternoon, but I can’t see commuters going for it in a big way, so I don’t think it’ll catch on over here.
The Cambodian Circus in Siem Reap is a hugely popular attraction for tourists. It’s a performance that tells a story, and has acrobats and music, but no animals.
It’s very hot inside the tent, so everyone is given a fan
The performers all come from very poor families and have been given free training and education. The troupe is so successful now that they have done several tours abroad.
In Phnom Penh everyone goes to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, which has become an institution since the days of the civil war, when foreign correspondents from all over the world flocked here to consume their daily units of alcohol.
It has a very colonial feel, and does a cracking Singapore Sling. The terrace overlooks the Mekong, and you can sit and watch the boats go by.
It markets itself shamelessly as a quirky, Evelyn Waugh and the British Empire-style club
but even so, I really enjoyed it.
My big worry now is, having released my inner tourist and given it free rein for ten days, I won’t be able to overpower it and beat it back into submission, and I will never again be able to feel superior to the package-holiday masses.
So this is the end – my trip’s over and I have to think about returning to the day job. Thank you for reading it and following my journey – any feedback will be very welcome – and I’ll let you know when the next big idea strikes and I start blogging again.
… on a motorbike.
Hurrah for the white van-less society!
When everyone’s in an open vehicle, you can see what’s going on – and I must admit that I’ve become a bit obsessed with watching the traffic, just to see what’s coming up the road next.
Not sure what these are called, but I saw quite a few in Phnom Penh.
Much harder work for the driver than a tuk tuk, and rather unnerving for the passenger, I should imagine.
And this is a Cambodian tractor. This one’s pulling a load of wooden furniture, but they can also be used for ploughing the fields, as a water pump and as a generator … a bit of an all-rounder.
And this chap is making a furniture delivery trip into a family outing.
This is the cigarette delivery lady
dropping off an order at a local village shop.
And God knows how he manages to keep this bike upright while he’s sharing it with five huge sacks of rice.
I don’t know what this man’s got in these sacks, but he has cleverly used his wife and small child as ballast.
This is the dustcart
and here is the Cambodian version of the camper van.
I can only assume that this tuk tuk is acting as a getawar car
for the three masked individuals inside.
You never see one person on a bicycle, even at our school where they give bicycles to the children, they don’t give them one each. The oldest child has the bike and takes the younger one on the back.
And this one is obviously the family vehicle.
Child seats range from a scarf tied across the handlebars
to a folded cloth on the cross bar – and hold on tightly.
And it’s not just the young and the midlife crisis sufferers who have motorbikes.
I’ve never seen a monk actually driving a bike, but I’ve seen plenty of them riding pillion.
This chap is obviously doing the school run
a sort of James Dean ten years further down the line.
Grace House has the only Special Needs Unit in Siem Reap Province – not just the town but the whole province – which has an area of over 10,000 square km with a population getting on for a million. The Grace House Unit can take 20 children, with five living in the residential house on site, and it is funded by Tesco – good old Tesco, I thought, when I found out.
It’s not a luxury facility, by any means, it’s very simply furnished and equipped. There’s a soft play room
and a sensory room with a few home made decorations on the ceiling, for the children who can’t move independently
plus a variety of toys and activities.
I think the most costly thing must be the high ratio of staff to children.
There are some truly heartbreaking stories amongst the pupils here – the girl who was kept chained up by her grandmother, the child found abandoned by the roadside, the boy whose Australian father disowned him and whose grandmother dumped him on the pavement outside his father’s home in Siem Reap after his mother died.
The School is hoping to open a second unit so that they can double their intake, and they are currently looking for funding. Presumably this will come from outside Cambodia as everything here for the needy is provided by foreign NGOs. Even the wheelchairs for the physically disabled children are not provided by the State – this one has been supplied by another NGO.
Following a conversation with the social worker in charge of the unit, I have committed to paying for some chickens and a henhouse, so that the children in the residential unit can learn to look after them. So if anyone has any good ideas for fundraising, please let me know.
Equally, if anyone knows of a company or individual who might be willing to pay for a second special needs unit – approx £12,000, I think – please let Grace House know.
Frustratingly, the hotel policy makes no further mention of the dangerous items, leading to all kinds of speculation – hand grenades? TNT? Durian?
Wandering past the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, I was surprised to see a member of the Queen’s Guard. No – not an international exchange of royal guards – he’s just advertising Costa Coffee.
Just as well, as I think her majesty might have something to say about his relaxed attitude and the state of his shoes.
Another surprise inside Costa (my only visit to an international chain … promise!) was a monk, sitting enjoying an iced coffee and an almond croissant.
I’ve seen so many monks standing outside houses in the mornings, waiting for an offering in exchange for a blessing, and I assumed they took the money back to the Pagoda to be used for rice and vegetables and other nourishing, unworldly food, rather than going to Costa … but Cambodian monks seem to be more Friar Tuck than Francis of Assissi.
The Palace is very splendid and stuffed full of gold, silver, emeralds and diamonds.
The King even has his own pavilion for standing and gazing at the moon at night – I don’t think even Marie Antoinette had one of those.
The royal pagoda has a whopping great emerald Buddha, and the floor is made up of 1,259 solid silver tiles, each weighing one kilo – seriously impressive, but no photos allowed, unfortunately.
I was allowed to photograph this room full of solid gold elephants though
which appear to have been made by someone who had only the vaguest idea of what an elephant looks like.
My guide told me all sorts of interesting facts, for example, in tradional Khmer culture you’re supposed to dress in a different colour every day of the week … as if life wasn’t complicated enough.
This photo could be used as a useful aide-memoire, counting across from Sunday on the left.
There was also a model of the coronation procession for the current king.
In front of him were rows of officials all carrying particular objects, presumably of symbolic importance, like a roll of cloth, or something that looks like a butternut squash
and one poor chap had to carry a very fluffy cat.
I hope it was well sedated to stop it jumping down and running off halfway along the route.
There is an enormous picture of the king outside the Palace, which is lit up at night.
I’m thinking of writing to Buckingham Palace to suggest that we do the same.
And just around the corner from the Palace, I came across this family.
They live on this mat on the pavement. They have three children and the woman is pregnant. I broke the rule instilled into all volunteers not to give money to beggars, and gave them $5. I hope they spent it on food, and I also hope that there’s a project like Grace House nearby that will give those children an education.
There were several families living on the pavement near the Palace.
This family lives under a tarpaulin tied to the railings of an expensive house.
Perhaps the King could offer them his moon gazing pavilion as a temporary home during the rainy season, as you certainly need a substantial roof over your head. The weather can change in twenty minutes from this –
to this –
where you can’t even see the sky any more and the streets are flooded within seconds.
There is so much rubbish everywhere in Cambodia, that I took this to be another pile of junk
and wondered vaguely why there were full bags of rice as well as the old televisions and videos. Then I saw a sign and realised that it is actually a modern art installation called ‘The Hawker’s Song’. It is exposing ‘the street hawker’s experience’ and highlighting the need to ‘maintain vibrant community cultures’. Needless to say, it was conceived and installed by two Western artists and not Cambodians.
To the person who told me that I ‘must have a foot massage in Cambodia’: what sort of masochist are you?
Despite previous experience of Khmer massage techniques, as this had been highly recommended, I was expecting a soothing afternoon – a sort of human version of a Dr Scholl footbath.
I lay down and noticed her long fingernails, and began to feel a familiar sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach … this was going to be Stress Release Massage, The Sequel.
I gritted my teeth as she dug her long nails, bony fingers and even bonier knuckles into my instep – but even then I wasn’t prepared for the stick. She had removed it surreptitiously from a basket on the floor, and with a lightening move jabbed me in the foot with it. She smiled as I shot upwards and headed for the ceiling with an agonised yelp, but she kept an iron grip on my foot so that the pressure didn’t release even for an instant. She held the stick in place for so long that it started to feel as if it was red-hot as well as sharp. Of course, once she realised how painful I found it, she wasn’t going to stop at one jab, and eventually my entire sole had been perforated and tenderised.
After the stick she clambered up onto the bed, but I was face up this time, so I could see her coming and prepare myself. There was a lot of chopping and pressing, and then she pulled every finger and toe until it cracked, and bent each one in every conceivable direction – both the possible and the impossible. Since when have fingers been considered part of the foot? I understand now how Apsara dancers are able to bend their wrists and fingers backwards; they’ve obviously had regular massage sessions since childhood – poor sods.
Next I had to sit up and she climbed up behind me and started jabbing and prodding at my back, like someone who’s desperate to get to the bar in a crowded Glasgow pub on a Saturday night. Then she dangled from my shoulders for a bit, as if we were limbering up for a particularly daring circus routine, and finished up with a flourish of karate chops to my back.
And the absolutely worst thing about a foot massage is that as you suffer every agonising jab and prod, you know that you’re going to have to relive the whole thing again when she moves to the other foot.
Continue reading The triumph of hope over experience
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
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.
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 fishermen
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.
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.
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.
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.
buying geckos to match your scarves and then creating an installation.
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.
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
who 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.
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.
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.
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 football
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 –
– 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!’
And I couldn’t quite work out which fable this is,
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.
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:
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.
ខ្ញុំជាគ្រូបង្រៀន 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.
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.
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.
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.
Vegetables 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.
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 …
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.
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.
When 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.
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.
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.