Saturday, 23 May 2009

Hello from Cambodia 19

Unless something goes dramatically wrong this will be the last blog that we will send from Cambodia. Yesterday we booked a flight from St Petersburg arriving at Gatwick on July 18th, the final stage of our journey home via China and Russia. The project we are working on is due to finish in August anyway and its funding has already run out. Plus all the schools in our district close, unofficially, from the end of June until the beginning of October (farming is a much more important activity for both staff and students). So rather than sit around twiddling our thumbs we decided to finish our placement 4 months early and take a leisurely journey home.

Meanwhile life goes on. Chris went to a 5 day National Conference on Child Friendly Education in Sihanoukville. This was variable in its level of interest and usefulness. As VSO, along with UNICEF, was a sponsor of the project we were asked to send a representative to sit on the stage during the opening ceremony. Chris drew the short straw mainly because the other volunteers present flatly refused to do it. Desperate to be near a fan she nabbed a chair at the end of the row next to a line of monks who were being brought in to bless the proceedings. Consequently she was, unwittingly, broadcast on national telly. This just shows how riveting Cambodian prime time viewing is. Lets hope the footage didn't display too many of her yawns.
The closing ceremony was even worse. The minister of education decided on a prolonged lunch and took his seat 2 hours late. Meanwhile the rest of the delegates were treated to the musings of some minor functionary who filled in with a verbal stream of consciousness. When the minister eventually turned up he berated his audience, who were all either head teachers or Provincial or District education directors, on their poor handwriting. This rudeness and thoughtless disregard by authority figures and meek tolerant acceptance by their subordinates is typical of Cambodia and explains why the most appalling corruption and mis-governance happens without any objections being raised.

Sihanoukville, on the Gulf of Thailand, has the potential to be as beautiful a holiday destination as some of the Thai islands. White sands, blue sea and palm trees, but somehow they just don't get it right. The beaches are strewn with rubbish and the town has no centre but sprawls along a dual carriageway. However Chris, Onno and Corrine had a very pleasant evening on the beach eating excellent BBQ seafood, watching fire jugglers and being blasted by Oasis through the Tanoy.

However for Khmer New Year we went back, for the last time, to our beloved Koh Chang.
At last, despite many, many invitations, we were able to attend a Khmer wedding. This was the marriage of an ex-VSO translator and our local bank cashier. It was a very grand affair held in a Battambang restaurant. Over 1000 guests sat down to an eight course meal of excellent food, although we were in and out in 2 hours and had to pay the $10 per head "wedding present" for the privilege. We returned to Phnom Preuk where another wedding was taking place next door but one. As is "traditional" they had set up loudspeakers on poles which, as luck would have it, were pointed directly at our house. We were woken at 4.30 am by the monks' blessings and it then continued nonstop as the master of ceremonies gave a blow by blow account of the proceedings. Then the music started at full blast, beginning with a traditional band amplified for the benefit of those who could not hear 5 miles away. We moved on to karaoke ballads and finished up with the "duff, duff, duff" of Khmer techno. It was excruciating. The house shook, the windows rattled, our stomachs knotted with the vibrations. We literally couldn't hear ourselves speak and resorted to barricading ourselves in the bedroom with toilet paper in our ears and pillows over our heads. By 8 pm Jon was having to be restrained from going out with wire cutters. Eventually at 11 pm ( after 18½ hours of aural torture ) they went quiet – ONLY TO START UP AGAIN AT 5 THE NEXT MORNING – we ran away to the office. The odd, but hardly surprising, thing was that whenever we went past there seemed to be nobody at the wedding - perhaps they were all sitting under the table rocking with fermented fish in their ears?

Speaking of Khmer culinary delights, we were treated to some seriously nasty food at the Khmer New Year office party. The menu included stewed eel, boiled cows intestines and chicken head and feet soup. Being guests of honour we had to make a show of trying everything – and enjoying it. We have come to the conclusion that we do not like Khmer food, especially country food. They will eat anything – if it moves it is a potential snack. Spiders, cockroaches, ants, frogs and dogs are all considered delicacies. Likewise every type of root, water plant and tree leaf is gathered and eaten; usually with copious amounts of garlic and chili. We believe this is a throw back to the famines of the Pol Pot era when so many people were reliant on a starvation diet. The only saving grace is the MANGO which is in season now. They are wonderfully sweet and juicy; and everywhere. Tesco will have to go some to compete with 6p a fruit. Work wise, Jon has been asked to run a workshop for secondary schools on experimental science. Consequently he has been constructing science equipment without spending any money, only using bits and pieces you would find lying around the average Khmer home - not much really. Eg Newton meter made of bamboo, beam balance from chopsticks, electrolysis cell from nail varnish bottles, toilet cleaner and a moto battery. The water rocket never quite got off the ground but it gave everyone a laugh when shot it half a litre of water all over him. At last we have stopped scaring the children and in fact some of them actively seek us out with shouts of "Hello barrang, bye-bye". Here is a selection of some of our favorites.
We had always meant to go to Laos before we left, having been told that it was the most chilled out place on earth. In fact our hand was forced because as there is no Mongolian embassy in Cambodia we would have to go to Vientiane to get a Mongolian transit visa for the Trans Siberian Railway. We decided to go via Thailand but with gross stupidity we omitted to book the night sleeper from Bangkok to the border. Consequently we had an 11 hour journey squeezed on to very hard seats in 3rd class. We were lucky; several people were sleeping on the floor.
After the initial culture shock the journey became almost bearable. As there was no air-con. all the windows and doors were wide open, a little bit of a health and safety issue perhaps. We had made ourselves some spam and chili sandwiches (yummy) but at every station the train was boarded by vendors selling cold drinks and snacks. Jon was eating a full meal of minced pork, omelette and rice at 12.30 am washed down with a bottle of Coke topped up with a liberal helping of Mekong Whiskey. Chris eventually fell asleep around 4 am to be abruptly woken at 4.30 by the crowing of a cockerel – in a box under the next seat!

Leaving Bangkok half an hour late we appeared to be on the Thai equivalent of the Euston to Watford slow train stopping every 10 minutes at a Thai Harrow and Wealdstone station. It took an hour and a half to leave the environs of Bangkok which is some indication of the vastness of the city. Note: There are more people in Bangkok than the whole population of Laos.

Eventually we picked up speed, and pretending to be Paul Theroux, were flashing through the Thai countryside with bamboo and palm trees illuminated by a full moon. Unlike Cambodia where everything shuts down at 8 pm, we could see car headlights moving along distant roads which were lit by sodium street lights. Is a rural night life an indication of national prosperity? In fact, as we passed through neat little stations decorated with potted plants and white fences, we felt we could have been speeding through the Surrey countryside – except for the bamboo and palm trees.

Crossing the border at the Friendship Bridge across the Mekong, we arrived in Vientiane, the capitol of Laos. It is so sleepy and laid back it makes Phnom Penh look like New York. From there we took a 10 hour bus journey to Luang Prabang. The Chinese built road wound its way through the spectacular scenery of wooded mountains, creeping along narrow ridges which had heart stopping drops on both sides but it was worth it. Luang Prabang is the ancient capitol of Laos. The presence of the Royal palace, many elegant wats and well preserved French Colonial houses have earned it the status of a World Heritage Site. Although it is now dedicated to tourism it seemed a restful place to stop and draw breath for a few days. We had intended to carry on further north to the more remote regions, which had been described by some as the closest thing to heaven on earth, but travel fatigue got the better of us and we were content to pootle about locally, taking a boat trip up the Mekong to visit Buddha filled caves and splash about in picturesque waterfalls. We also visited local villages that specialised in weaving and making whiskey.Besides the Beer Lao was cheap and the street food delicious. The differences between Laos and Cambodia are striking. Here are a few:
There was no litter and the ubiquitous discarded plastic bag was totally missing. In the towns small private cars drove along pavement lined tarmac roads. There were no feral dogs and chickens, people didn't shout and spit and there were old people. Basically Laos seemed to have got its act together.

Why is this? Superficially the two countries are similar; mainly rural economies, dragged into the Vietnam War (Laos is the most bombed country, per capita, in history ) and subsequently underwent a communist revolutions. Why then does Laos exude such national self confidence where as Cambodia comes over as self deprecating and desperate? In our opinion some of the answers lie in the legacy of shame and trauma left by the Pol Pot Regime and the terrible self-harming from which Cambodia has not yet recovered. Secondly, in our opinion, while the country is under the controlling, corrupt influence of Hun Seng and his cronies it will never be given the chance to flourish and develop. Finally, and maybe controversially, the huge amount of international development aid that is poured into Cambodia has created a dependency culture which prevents them from standing on their own feet and from having the confidence to make something of their beautiful country.

Maybe as we are preparing to go home this final blog seems rather bitter and disillusioned. At times we have certainly felt frustrated by the corruption, apathy and lack of initiative we have had to contend with but on the other hand we do feel we have achieved something and the schools and children of Phnom Preuk District have benefitted from our being here. Also we have taken the Cambodian people to our hearts, despite the daily hardships, the depravations and the lack of prospects there is always the Khmer smile.
We will miss the village and its people who have been so welcoming, we will miss the beautiful countryside, the morning light on the mountains and the spectacular sunsets. We will miss the monks, the cows, the motos. We will miss Cambodia. Maybe, one day, we will come back.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Hello from Cambodia 18

While England was experiencing its worst “snow event” for 20 years Cambodia was having its own severe weather problem –MORE DUST. During the rainy season the roads in Phnom Preuk had been washed away and serious maintenance was needed. Big bulldozers scraped off the deeply rutted surface and replaced it with loose soil which was then patted down. Unfortunately at this time of year convoys of huge juggernauts laden with rice trundle their way to the Thai border and within a week the road surface had completely broken up again and the result was dust.
As fast as the lovely Touch swept it up, it sneaked back in under the door and settled on every surface. People took on an orange “Tangoed” look and a clean shirt lasted less than an hour. Wearing sunglasses while on the moto left you with “panda eyes” and the state of nostrils and ears does not bear thinking about. When the swirling dust caught the sun it gave the effect of a mild snow blizzard. Children happily played in the drifts of the stuff although we did not see them building a “dustman” or throwing “dust balls”.

In these conditions driving becomes hazardous. Driving a moto through drifts a foot deep is far more difficult than negotiating mud as the wheels have nothing to grip and as all noise is muffled there is no warning of oncoming traffic. Fortunately we have escaped with no more than a low speed tumble and a few scrapes and grazes. Thankfully now the “mango rains” have arrived to dampen things down and turn the countryside green again.

The wedding season is with us once more but annoyingly, despite several invitations, due to prior engagements, we have been unable to attend one yet. We were however invited to the Deputy Governor’s mother’s 5 year funeral. Traditionally the previously buried body is exhumed, the bones are cleaned up a bit and burnt, the remains are interred in a Stupor and everyone has a bit of a party to celebrate.
Also a local headmaster asked us to his son’s “baby warming”; it’s a bit like a christening but with no baby. All these ceremonies seem to involve the same ritual. Turn up 2 hours late, hand over $10, sit at a table with 8 people you don’t know, endure extremely loud music being blasted from a stack of speakers just by your ear, eat and drink as much as you can, then leave.

At one of these do’s we were told about what the district was like over 15 years ago before it was settled by the returning refugees from the camps over the Thai border. Apparently you couldn’t see the sky for the leaf canopy and the trees were too wide to hug. One specimen was so huge that when they cut it down they “put it in a tree museum” in Thailand. (Did they “change the people a dollar and a half just to see ‘em?” -- Joni Mitchell). Hearing this, then looking at the acres of deforestation that surrounds us, can be very depressing.

We have however discovered that there is an abundance of quite dramatic wildlife living quite near us. We were taken to visit the local crocodile farm. About 30 large ponds are home to thousands of these reptiles which range in size from tiny newly hatched croclets to 8 foot monsters. Rather worryingly we were told that when there is very heavy rain the ponds overflow and a few crocs nip into the nearby stream. This is another reason, apart from unexploded mines, not to go for a Sunday afternoon stroll through the countryside. The farmer invited us into his kitchen to see his pets. Three very large tigers and a rather miserable black bear were sauntering around behind some very insubstantial bars. Hummmm.

Work is chugging along, although we do feel there is more enthusiasm and confidence amongst the teachers we have been working with and the lessons we observe show more evidence of child centered teaching and less learning by rote. We are still however sometimes shocked by what we see. A headmaster offered to show us a new school that had been built by a village in “the forest”. He roared off on his moto down a muddy track, his 4 year old daughter casually sitting in front of him. We followed trying to keep up with Chris riding pillion, hanging on for dear life, her eyes tightly shut. After 40 minutes off-roading, including descending a mountain down a very steep stream gully, we reached the village. They were very proud of their home made school even though it only had 1 wall and a tin roof but the level of commitment we observed by the untrained teacher was really inspiring. (Sorry the camera battery went flat so no pics).

The VSO volunteer who works with the teacher training college in Battambang brought some of her teacher trainers out to Phnom Preuk to show them what it was like for newly qualified teachers out in the sticks. They were appalled not only by the state of some of the schools, one class room still had a cow in it, but also by the conditions in which some of the new teachers lived. One poor pregnant lady teacher has to make do with little more than a wooden box by the side of the road. The teacher trainers returned to Battambang full of horror stories but we doubt it will result in much change.
The annual VSO Education conference took place in Phnom Penh which was a good excuse to visit the big city. This year the theme was developing creativity in teaching, something that is sadly lacking in the Cambodian education system. The highlight was the “creative free expression” afternoon. The sight of Onno dressed as a Cambodian fairy tale princess, the Khmer assistants discovering poster paints and everyone dancing to the theme from Austin Powers will be remembered forever.

Cambodia hasabout 29 public holidays and they were deeply shocked to dicover that we have only 8, perhaps not everything is better in England. They are still happy to take advantage of everyone else's celebrations. Valentine's day is a big deal here as is Chinese New Year. This is a really jolly and colourful festival when families get together to eat, dress up and burn money (only the Pretend stuff.)

Of course we have made our inevitab le return to Koh Chang for a spot of R and R. Onno had persuaded Jon that he would “really love” diving and it was certainly an experience not to have missed. The coral reefs are like beautiful underwater gardens inhabited by electric blue sea anemones and shoals of rainbow coloured fish. Jon, however, decided that once was probably enough and in future he would look for his thrills on dry land, viz a ski slope.

The advent of the home made oven has resulted in more culinary experimentation. Steak and kidney pie, Cornish pasties and Yorkshire puddings have all proved to be amazingly successful as was the banana and peanut cake. The only problem is that, although this is a welcome change from stir fried veg and rice; we are piling on the pounds.
A traditional Khmer delicacy is Prahok, otherwise known as Cambodian cheese. It is a grey sludge made of fermented fish. We visited a prahok "factory" just out side Battambang and as you can imagine the smell was indescribable. Jon will vouch for the fact that, when cooked in the traditional Khmer way, it is delicious.

We were delighted to receive more Parmiterian visitors in the shape of Dave Rapson, Tom Pegram, Matt Pollard and James Ovens with his Canadian cousin Ed. They had deviated from their world tour to pop in and see us on their way to Thailand and we had a very jolly evening reminiscing about Parmiter’s (Strange how after a few beers and several thousand miles it seems a much better place now we have all left). Bizarrely, to date, nine ex-students from the same school in a small town in SE England have all visited this even smaller town in remote, rural NW Cambodia. Should Phnom Preuk twin with Garston?

Jon had a very pleasant evening when he went to meet Marilyn and John Gerry who were visiting the temples of Ankor Wat. The only down side to this was that on his return from Siem Reap he had to share a 5 seater Toyota Camry taxi with 12 other people. Cosy!

As the Khmer New Year approaches and the temperature rises we are thinking that it is time to take another little trip – but where? Thailand, Laos, Malaysia, Vietnam…… so much choice – poor old us!