Khmer New Year!

Every year in Cambodia, for three days in April, power shortages and empty drinks shops start to become a common occurrence. This is because every house is partying from sunrise to well past the sunset with giant amps blaring hip hop into the stars and ever growing piles of empty Angkor beer cans appearing outside the houses. Incense floats around the villages as a table in each residence is dedicated to offerings for the gods with whatever that family can afford – from a bowl of fruit to lavish displays of flowers and food in the expensive hotels.

So why are these three days in the fourth month of the worldwide calendar named as the time to bring in the Cambodian New Year? Khmer New Year is a traditional Buddhist celebration (a similar event occurring in Thailand) and is based on an ancient story of the gods. I have no idea how factually correct this folk tale is as one of my students told me the story, still it is pretty entertaining so I’m not too fussed!

The all-powerful deity named ‘Prohm’ is a four-faced god, each side of his head revealing a different peaceful expression. His head sits atop the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh and on many large pagodas and stupas. The story of this New Year celebration starts with the meeting between Prohm and mere mortal man. Prohm appears to this man and tells him he wants answers to three very important questions on the meaning of life. In only three days, Prohm will return to this man expecting answers. If he fails, the man will be killed instantly. If he succeeds, Prohm promises to allow the man to cut off his four-faced head. The man is of course terrified and unable to think due to his fear, the days start to pass and he accepts his death is inevitable. There are, like with most religious stories, many versions of the Khmer New Year story. In some, giant talking Cambodian birds appear to be discussing the questions and the man overhears the correct answers, in others the birds are elderly women, likewise in some they are bickering gods. The result in every one, however, is the same. Upon Prohm’s return to the man, the questions are all answered correctly much to the god’s surprise. As promised, the man decapitates the four-faced head and avoids an untimely death.

Prohm has 7 daughters who are loyal to their father and upon his death became the sole worshippers and protectors of the four-faced head of their father. Each year a different daughter carries the head around the highest mountain on a pilgrimage of worship to their father. This journey also takes 3 days until the head is returned to its residence where the daughter then guards it until it is passed to the next oldest daughter the year after. Every year symbolises a different daughter being chosen to carry the head and protect it and of course it goes in a 7-year cycle. In 2013 the oldest daughter passed it onto the youngest so it started the next cycle, making it a special year. Just as Chinese New year has its zodiac animals, each daughter represents a different animal. This year the eldest was represented with a snake, which we saw decorated around Siem Reap.

It is a story steeped in legend and Buddhist teaching but for most it is an excuse to have a much-needed break from hard labour and for a while escape from the battle of survival day-to-day. Families with nothing, find money to buy nicer food and maybe invest in a new couple of outfits from the local market for their children. However many Khmer people are faithful to their religion and it doesn’t have the same kind of consumerist angle that Christmas comparatively has in the UK. When the first day begins, most families rise at 2am to bring in the New Year celebrations. The table of offerings is filled with sticks of burning incense and people wish for good luck and for their dreams to come true. The TV channels show Apsara dancers in full traditional clothing representing the daughters of Prohm and reproduce a version of the passing of the head from one daughter to the next so it can be carried three times around the mountain on it’s yearly pilgrimage. We were lucky enough to join this ceremony at 2am and although I was mainly asleep with my eyes open I managed to wish good luck for my family and receive a blessing bracelet from the elder mother and landlady of our house. We then watched the TV channel’s imitation of the head of Prohm being carried in its pilgrimage before collapsing back into bed.

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The next day we woke up to thumping music at a mere 7am and grumbling, rolled back under the sheets to try and sleep to the pounding beat. Throughout the three days I can safely say I heard gangnam style about 10 times, maybe more in passing… thankfully Psy’s new song had yet to grace the country so it could’ve been worse! A whole disc of Khmer New Year songs was created especially for the event and every family seemed to have a copy -we soon knew how to hum along to the catchy ones and learnt a few of the moves too (much to the amusement of the locals of course!)

I was lucky enough to have my family over for this celebration and although I stayed in my Khmer house with Trish, we met up for many of the celebrations that occurred.

2013 was a particularly special year to be in Cambodia for Khmer New Year, because for the first time ever, a giant 3 days celebration was being held at no-other than THE Angkor Wat! I couldn’t believe the temples were being opened to the masses of Cambodia to celebrate this national party holiday. Usually the temples are all shut and closed off to visitors from 6pm at night. During the celebration the temples were specially lit up with colourful stage lighting, candles lined the walkway to the majestic towering turrets of Angkor Wat. The Bayon temple of faces changed from purple to blue to pink, smiling out into the darkness like never before. The dramatic lighting actually enhanced the temple’s carvings, casting shadows around the posing apsaras and giant elephants so they almost loomed out of the stone. To put it simply, it was breath-taking. We visited the celebrations in the afternoon and evening, watching a giant open-air concert (all in Khmer of course!) and appearing to be the only white faces in a crowd of thousands. The atmosphere was incredible and what I loved most was that this was something organised for the Khmer people by Khmer people, if foreigners decided to come then so be it, but tourism for once was not the focus. There were markets set up and giant festival-like beer tents around the temple sites. We visited Angkor Wat in the setting sun and as dusk fell, came out to the front to light a floating candle and push it out onto the large lake that lies in front of the temple’s gates. In the darkness, hundreds of candles floated slowly across the water’s surface, each inscribed with people’s hopes and dreams for the coming year. We each wrote our own wishes onto our candle’s base before a young child swam out with it into the dark water so it wouldn’t get caught on the bank. We watched it gracefully make its way out onto the black liquid, the tiny flame flickering in the gentle breeze and fading to a speck amongst hundreds of others. The overall picture is something I will never forget, it felt almost magical to be by one of the wonders of the world with Trish and my parents watching our candle float away.

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We also took Chhaiky with us to the celebrations, who has become a great friend to Trish and I this year as a full-time Khmer teacher at Honour Village. It made the experience even better to see how happy she was to join with so many other Khmer people to celebrate this amazing first-off event. I don’t think she had ever seen so many people in one place before, I actually don’t think any of us have (apart from maybe at a music festival but that’s not exactly the same atmosphere…) We ate dinner at one of the restaurants that had popped up for the event and made our way around the various trade fairs before ending the night at a giant Khmer open-air concert. I was amazed at the logistical planning that had gone into the event, thousands of volunteers had been brought in from Phnom Penh mainly and there was even some police armed with AK47s to make sure everyone was enjoying themselves but not too much…

As well as the surreal evening at the temples celebrations, there were traditional games and dancing constantly going on outside Angkor Wat and many of the other temples which we weren’t able to see but watched on some of the Khmer TV channels. As we arrived back to my parent’s hotel that same night we had witnessed the celebration one of the staff came running, “Your daughters were on the TV!” she excitedly told my Dad. It seems that as we were watching the Khmer concert the local TV station covering the event (aptly named Bayon TV) decided that the only white faces in the crowd deserved a bit of airtime! Pretty much on our way to super-khmer-stardom…

The reason we were able to take part in all these different celebrations was due to Honour Village being closed for just under a week during the Khmer New Year holiday. All the children went home to their villages, to extended family, friends or remaining parents, meaning the whole site closed!

However we still wanted to celebrate this special time of year with the kids at our project so before the site closed, we had a day when we invited all our students to come to a big Khmer New Year party – HVC style!! We had no classes and instead spent the day joining in traditional Khmer games. My favourite one was a kind of variation on duck, duck, goose (hopefully most of you reading had an opportunity to play that as kids!) where a child walks around a huge circle of sitting children, with a towel that has been tied into a knot and taps someone on the back with it. That person then takes the towel and has to chase the child on their right around the circle trying to batter them with it before they make it back to their seat! Then whoever loses has to repeat the same thing, choosing a bewildered victim to carry on the chase. Whilst they play the traditional games, Khmer songs are sung at the top of their voices, which every child and adult of any age seems to know. It was incredible to be a part of the day and especially get involved with the crazy talcum powder fights (apparently the excuse is that it’s ‘good luck’ to be attacked with powder) which meant we ended up looking geisha-like at various points of the day, until we sweated it off of course… We also had a water-balloon game where a blind-folded child wielding a large stick had to burst their hanging balloon of water before their opponent burst theirs. Almost got knocked out a couple of times but it was so much fun. Other games included sack races and pass the elastic band with straws, the list goes on! It took me back to times when we used to have so much fun with just household things like towels and spoons and eggs, before the age of technology took over completely (yeah I’m actually only 19 but feeling like an old crony already in that sense.) There was of course the obligatory 10 ft high amps that blasted Khmer remixes of J-Lo and Pitbull all day until 9pm, spaced between the Khmer New Year songs which involved us attempting to dance traditionally in a slow circle around a desk.

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As well as the big party which included around 250 children from the villages as well as the HVC kids, we had a day just with the Honour Village children. This was our ‘big day out’ with them when we loaded onto a big coach at 7am and spent the day visiting temples with them! First of all we trekked about a million miles (it was something like 3 km but still…) up to Kbal Spean which is a waterfall that has carvings on the rocks, it was beautiful and of course I was made to stand under the freezing water, but not as spectacular as in rainy season due to the dry heat that had persisted in Cambodia in the previous couple of months. We then ate our packed lunch of rice, omelette and meat with the kids on the forest floor on old cement sacks before loading onto the bus again. Hilariously nearly every child was sick from motion sickness that day. Not just feeling queasy but full on sick, either at various points on the bus on the journeys or all crouched in the trees nearby as we pulled up to our next destination. The staff were all ill too, and the sight of all the House mother plus about 30 or so children just crouching in the forest holding their stomachs was so bizarre! I think it’s because the journeys were very long and none of the kids or mothers have had much experience on the steady coach motion we experienced. Bewildered by the numbers with motion sickness, Trish and I tried to help by passing the bags around and hugging the kids who felt really bad with it. However I think everyone knew that the journeys were worth it, after the first hilltop waterfall temple we then travelled to the beautiful Banteay Srei temple. This temple is unique as it is made from a pinkish coloured stone and was carved solely by women! We then piled back onto the bus for one last stomach-lurching journey to the local reservoir lake named ‘Western Baray’. It is almost a sea-side-like place for the people of Siem Reap province who are pretty much as far from the coast as you can get.

The giant reservoir was definitely the best bit of the day! It is absolutely huge and seems to stretch on for miles around, although with the dry season there were now sandy islands emerging at its centre. There is a sort of beach on the banks of the water and from there we all ran in to swim and play with all the children. We managed to rent out giant rubber rings to float in and then of course capsize as well! Next to the beach area were tons of little bamboo structures with ladders leading up to floors covered in bamboo mats to sit on and rest. Each little section had hammocks to lie and relax and we all ate a big dinner of roast chicken – all the chickens usually roaming around creating havoc were killed especially for the day (can’t say I was too sad to see those chickens go…!) It was an amazing day where we could spend quality time with all the Honour Village children in a different setting, they all loved it and by the time we crawled into bed I was completely exhausted!

The last event I have not yet mentioned which we were lucky enough to attend during this festival was the day after my parents flew home back to the UK. Chhaiky invited us to her house and later to the local pagoda to see the ‘washing of the elders’ ceremony. It is the last ceremony as the festivities are coming to a close and is a sign of respect to the older generation. Each family in their own household gets their parents and grandparents together and the children have to bathe them with buckets of water and sweet smelling flowers and soaps. They literally wash their arms and legs with their bare hands as if washing their own children. We watched from the side-lines and it was a bizarre but wonderful thing to behold. It then turned into a water fight amongst the younger family members but only after the older people had been thoroughly soaked to the skin! After the cleansing, the older members held prayers for the family and blessed each of their children, nephews and grandchildren together in their homes. The same process was repeated in neighbours’ homes and then as a village unit in the pagoda with grandmothers and grandfathers specifically. This was the climax of the day’s celebrations as monks also sat with the oldest members of the community where we live and there must’ve been over 200 sitting on benches waiting to be drenched in flower-infused water. It is a true symbol of the respect that the Cambodian people have as a Buddhist people, towards their elder generations, to care for them and give them something back and we felt incredibly lucky to have been allowed to observe and get involved with this tradition!

DSC02328Khmer New Year was a definite highlight of my year, I was so exhausted by the time we went back to volunteering again with the teaching work that I pretty much slept the whole weekend after! It was an incredible and unforgettable experience seeing the main festival of a country which is like birthdays, Christmas and every other celebration of the year rolled into one big party. The country came alive with music and celebration, every house over-flowed with colourful paper lanterns and LED lights were twined around banisters, pillars and tree trunks and hung between streetlamps. Specifically for the festival, big star decorations are made from a wooden frame and covered in coloured plastic which are then illuminated from the inside; HVC had its own huge one hanging by the front gate! Siem Reap seemed to come alive with the most traffic I have ever seen, as thousands of people travelled from the provinces to take part in the big temple celebrations. Although Cambodia also celebrates the international New Year that we do at home, and the Chinese New Year, it is Khmer New Year that really captures the souls of Khmer people and is their chance to have one hell of a party celebrating it!

Now currently on a 10 hour bus journey to Mondulkiri and the North East so expect more blogs to come soon…- I was when I wrote this but at the time of publishing am heading home from my North-Eastern adventures back to Siem Reap tomorrow!!

xxx

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To Vietnam and back again, the story that almost went untold…

After many months of you all waiting and me stalling, here it is in all its essay/short novel-form glory- the perilous and hilarious adventures of South Vietnam which commenced on the 28th of December 2012 and ended on the 15th of January 2013. It seems a lifetime ago and the fact it’s now April seems a little ridiculous to me. I am somewhat disappointed I haven’t written this sooner but at least I have managed to write what I can still remember before my goldfish memory leaves only the photos as a record.

It all began, as most travel adventures in S.E. Asia do, with a horrendous bus journey. To say this is the worst travel experience of my life may sound dramatic but I can honestly say that after 17 hours of being imprisoned on low-rate buses I genuinely thought that Ho Chi Minh City was a fictional destination that the travel companies had made up to exploit us all. Of course this was just my delusional sleep-deprived mind talking and when we finally entered the cities chaotic outskirts and saw the Vietnamese billboards and skyscraper tall buildings, excitement crept into my tired body. The reason we had a bad time on the buses comes down to the fact we managed to experience the 3 top worst things to encounter on long-haul journeys anywhere. 1 – Lack of sleep as getting on ‘a sleeper bus’ that has upright chairs at 1am in the morning does not equal sweet dreams. 2 – The awful quality of the buses, they were uncomfortable, dirty and just crap. 3 – The route. We probably took the longest possible one imaginable, through the middle of nowhere on roads that seemed to be installed with some kind of mini-mountain range on their surfaces.

However we are not the kind of people who are fazed by a terrible journey. In fact we all felt that by the end of our time in Vietnam, every sore muscle we had on arrival was worth it. It’s safe to say I absolutely loved Ho Chi Minh, it felt strange to be in such a huge place. The streets reminded me of an Asian kind of New York as the roads were narrow and hemmed in by towering flats and offices. There were so many clothes shops, I have no idea how any of them stay in business. There were chains of Burger King and KFC, western coffee shops and even a designer shopping district with Gucci and Louis Vuitton (clearly in our price range, actually the only one out of those I’ve mentioned that we tried was the ‘asian’ KFC!) after 4 months or so of seeing only Siem Reap or Phnom Penh it was amazing to walk streets which seemed almost similar to the bustling cities of the UK, but with so much more colour and of course a load more Vietnamese people… On our first day we encountered our one and only scam to date so far this year. A taxi driver ‘kindly’ drove us 3 times around the same block to our guesthouse and charged us 6 dollars. We realised as we walked to dinner later that out guesthouse was in fact opposite the bus stop we were dropped at.  Laughing it off, it definitely could’ve been worse and somehow I think getting scammed in Vietnam is sort of part of it. Needless to say we were not tricked again! Our guesthouse was called ‘The Red Sun’ and run by a lovely woman who we made friends with during our stay. We’d heard stories that the hospitality in Vietnam was somewhat stony and cold compared to the warmth of Khmer people in Cambodia. I cannot believe how much our welcome at The Red Sun contradicted all of the opinions we’d heard. We spent our days exploring the city from visiting a Green Jade Pagoda to shopping in the Benh Tanh Central market.

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One of our best days was our visit to the famous ‘Cu Chi’ tunnels, based just outside of the city. It’s a huge historical site leftover from the days of the guerrilla tactics of the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War. The Viet Cong were the liberation army of the North and created a massive series of underground tunnels which turned into an almost city-like complex with underground kitchens, bedrooms and a whole sewage water system. Every part of the tunnel system which stretched at its peak over 360 km in length, was dug out with small spades and done by hand. It was incredible to learn about this community of thousands of Vietnamese who had to give up the most basic human resource, sunlight. For the whole period of the war these remarkable people lived in darkness, babies were born, elders died and deadly attacks were planned deep within the earth. It is impossible for any of us to imagine what those kinds of conditions were like but thousands died inside the tunnels either from disease, starvation, accidental cave ins and of course in attacks from the Americans. They were ingenious in design and even went underneath American camps, so they could ambush in the darkness and then disappear without a trace. We learnt about some different types of tunnel openings, such as fox holes which seemed to be no bigger than a small child in size. We were lucky enough to go into a stretch of the tunnels which had been modified for western sizes as the Vietnamese originals were so tiny. It was terrifying climbing into the earth and shuffling on hand and foot through these cramp passageways in darkness. A lot of people on the tour did maybe only 10 metres of the tunnel system but we managed to complete the 300metre total course which is open to the public. It was an eye-opening experience and of course a bit of a fear we conquered! We also learnt about the traps they created for the American forces in the grounds around the tunnels, they all pretty much involved very sharp spikes and even though they were primitive they looked very very lethal. The most amazing part about these tunnels is that they were completely secret, the Americans never found out the extent of the underground network or managed to infiltrate any of the tunnels properly. I was pretty much in my element as we had learnt about the Vietnam War for my History A level at school so became an informal tour guide… (this happens a lot. Oops.)

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We also decided to visit the History Museum in Ho Chi Minh, again based around the Vietnam War period and had some very gruesome exhibits about the effects of Agent Orange, a chemical weapon used to destroy large parts of the Vietnamese jungles. There were huge blown up photographs of deformed babies and children with awful disabilities as a result of the exposure to the deadly chemicals. Even U.S. soldiers were affected and there was one photo of a young American girl I will never forget. It is a huge black and white photograph of a very beautiful child around 5 years old who has bright blonde hair in pigtails and is wearing a pretty white dress. Yet she has no arms. The photograph is beautifully shot in soft focus and it had a profound effect on me due to how her innocence was contrasted with this stark reminder of just how far reaching the war’s consequences were. There were also exhibits showing the press coverage by the American side and of course a lot of extremely biased propaganda against the U.S forces which was to be expected from a Vietnamese museum. It was a pretty tough day to see such Technicolor examples of the violence and of course read more detail about the atrocities committed by the U.S soldiers (e.g. the My Lai massacre…) I am so glad we had the chance to explore how Vietnam shows the war and learn even more about how it affected the country. Things do look positive though and there were many displays focusing on the now peaceful relations between Vietnam and the U.S.A.

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Although we were spending time delving into Vietnam’s past we of course had our main event of our holiday. New Year’s Eve! I have to say it was the craziest and most surreal experience of my life that I doubt I will be able to match. It consisted first of having awesome matching outfits of the Vietnamese flag on t-shirts… I’m not sure why we decided to all wear matching clothes but if we weren’t going to stand out enough as a group of 5 white girls in a city of millions of Vietnamese then well, now we were pretty much a tourist attraction for them. So we marched out onto the city streets of Ho Chi Minh, eager to find the huge countdown clock which was rumoured to be in a large square in the centre of town.  After running through hundreds of people and crossing roads packed with motos (I’m talking thousands upon thousands of the things) we finally found the huge crowd of people waiting for the big countdown. We hadn’t quite realised the scale of the event and learnt later that 8 million Vietnamese people had turned up in the square to watch 2013 begin. This is probably why the crowd pretty much turned into a giant mosh pit, minus the crappy screamo music. Instead there were Vietnamese pop tunes blaring out and we fought our way through the packed crowd to find a spot to watch the giant clock. The display was incredible, with a giant L.E.D covered tower with a globe on the top and huge t.v. screens showing the crowds. Dancers hung from ribbons across the central part of the square and everyone was ‘dancing’ (which was basically shuffling it was so packed.) We seemed to meet and say hello to every single member of the crowd we met and the whole night is a blur of faces I can honestly say I can’t remember (for more reasons than it was just busy haha!) Finally the countdown came and the 5 of us screamed it out in English against the huge 8 million strong chorus of Vietnamese numbers. When the time came it was like everyone had just exploded with excitement and we hugged the crowd around us, we then pushed our way to the front and performed an ‘ad-lib’ version of Aud Lang Syne, seeing as none of us actually knew the words it was hilarious and we attracted a huge audience of random Vietnamese people. After midnight we then spent almost 2 hours posing in photographs with pretty much everyone in the crowd. Trish was even told to hold a woman’s baby and pose with it… I think it was a mix of the matching t-shirts with their flag on and the fact we were the only white faces we saw the whole night!

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Ho Chi Minh City had served our NYE expectations and risen above them. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so much or had so many photos with people in my life. It was then time to continue our travels to the beach town of Nha Trang. We only had a couple of days in this coastal backpacking destination and were all pretty much expecting some beach time and some good times out! Unfortunately it was overcast most days so no hard-core tanning took place (even with our best efforts of lying in our bikinis during a mini-sandstorm being blown up.) What was incredible to see, because of the less than perfect weather, was the way the sea reacted. The waves reached unbelievable heights and as they plummeted back to earth, sand, rocks and of course a whole load of water threw itself back into the sea. Needless to say I avoided any paddling in the shallows- a couple of the girls braved it during our one attempt at tanning and ran full pelt into the collosal waves. I was seriously worried that I might have to throw myself in after them to rescue them from the raging sea, not that I would’ve helped at all in that situation anyway. But the lack of hot sunshine didn’t put a dampener on our spirits and we had a couple of fun nights just chilling out and enjoying the holiday feeling -A particular favourite of ours was the amazingly named ‘Why not?’ bar… In each place we visited we tried to have a main event or activity we did that we could splurge a bit on, as we were living on as little as possible most days. For Nha Trang we chose to go to a posh restaurant on the sea-front called the ‘Sailing Club.’ I can safely say we will never forget the food we ate that night. It was undoubtedly some of the best food I think I have ever eaten or will ever eat! Especially as fried rice and omelettes had been our travel food of choice, when my seafood risotto presented itself I had to pinch myself. It’s the only time none of us worried about the price (well not until after of course!) We decided we’d been pretty pro so far at living on about 10 dollars worth of a food a day (so that’s what.. 6 pounds?) The food ranged from my heavenly risotto to an incredible creamy cheesecake which has been remembered as a kind of mythical legend now and is often brought up after a week of rice and porridge at our project… Sitting by the sea, watching the angry waves crash onto the beach illuminated in the dark by the restaurant’s floodlights, I had a little thought to myself ‘life doesn’t get a lot better than this.’ The funniest thing was the bill at the end, apart from the fact it was of course a little out of our usual price range, we were using the Vietnamese Dong currency. 10,000 VND is a dollar, so you can imagine what the total looked like. It was in the millions! After our culinary indulgence, the next day we were saying goodbye to Nha Trang and decided to book our sleeper up to the mountainous town of Dalat. The bus journey was again amazing and luxurious as the one from HCMC has been. Compared to the Cambodian sleeper buses these were like travelling guesthouses and I was beginning to think that Vietnam had backpacker travel sorted…

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As we travelled further into the misty mountains and into Dalat after another period of endless hours of interrupted sleep and groggy book-reading, I began to see a completely different landscape of Vietnam. The urban scenery and tin-shack store fronts transformed into lush green jungle and endless fields of rice and crops. The road up to Dalat seemed to be carved into the mountain, giving way to spectacular views which slowly became obscured by a thick, cold mist which engulfed our bus. I couldn’t believe we were still in the same country, it felt like we had transported into a completely different world. The road’s edges fell down in sheer drops into jungle-ridden valleys below- luckily they were mostly quite wide so I didn’t fear too much for our lives on this occasion. When we arrived in the town itself the first thing we felt was the cold! Of course we knew it wouldn’t be like the heat of Ho Chi Minh as it was much higher up but it was a big surprise as to just how cold… I had one jumper and a pair of leggings that I had to wear every day with extra layers underneath as well. It was a mere 25 degrees and I think it made us all realise just how much we have acclimatised to the mid-to-high 30s which we live in day-to-day (god help me when I move up to sunny sunny Scotland for university!) The other aspect which surprised us was how much it reminded us of home, not just the weather or the fact everyone was wearing jumpers but just the way the city was laid out. It was again very developed, just as Ho Chi Minh City had developed into a super-city, this town had clearly caught up with the 21st century. The atmosphere was of an almost German-pinewood getaway and again we were warmly greeted by our guesthouse owner. The accommodation was so impressive for the prices we paid and it looked like a kind of hunting lodge! Dalat is actually a very popular Vietnamese tourist destination for families living in the Southern part of the county, so we saw a lot of local holiday-makers that made a lovely change as well. By the end of our time there we had all acquired wooly hats and several new jumpers which we have hardly worn since… Our days mostly consisted of walking down to eat at the fabulous bakeries, scour the beautiful markets and drink amazing coffee! The town was really striking in a lot of ways and I had fun with my camera (maybe too much fun, there were so many photos!)

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What sealed the deal in making Dalat our favourite part of the Vietnamese adventure was our day canyoning out in the mountain’s jungles and waterfalls. This was undoubtedly one of the most amazing days of my life! I had no idea what canyoning even was and went along with the other girls excitement with no idea what I had really signed up for… but I’m glad I did! We hopped onto a mini-bus with about 10 other backpackers and thrill-seekers. Mostly middle-aged men, we were the only ones below the age of 25 and I was a little worried that my notorious uncoordination, fear of heights and general failure at sporty activities was going to be noticed big time. However we got chatting to our group and they were all really lovely people- at times they were more scared than any of our group! We arrived at a random point in a jungle-lined road and were kitted up with our life-jackets, harnesses and helmets. I had forgotten to bring any kind of practical shoes (as usual) so was given an attractive pair of old plimsoles which looked like they’d been around longer than me – by the end of the day I completely understood why they looked so dirty! Our instructors were incredible both at English and keeping us safe for the whole day. They were all experienced Vietnamese abseilers and seemed to genuinely love their jobs, somehow I think they must have one of the best jobs in the world! The group trekked down a very very steep hill path deep into the jungle. We stopped by some trees which were growing almost at 45 degree angles to the earth, to practice our abseiling techniques. I have never really been great at this stuff so I was very nervous about trying it out, luckily the instructors were patient and talked me through how to handle myself on the ropes. It was then time to try out what we’d learned! Nothing like a 15ft sheer cliff drop to practice… I’m not quite sure how I did all those things looking back but the adrenaline pumping through my body all day made me feel almost high (no drugs were involved, even if at some points I wished they were haha!) We did 4 different abseils at different areas of the river which we followed. 2 were down cliff faces and then 2 were actually abseils down running waterfalls! Between each abseil we swam through the rivers and slid over rocks. My favourite part was the natural rock slides, were we literally just slid down small waterfalls on our backs! The trekking was really difficult and so so tiring but the only way to reach the climax of our adrenaline adventures. The 25ft waterfall abseil. Yes, I was suspended twenty five meters high, clinging onto a rock with my only my feet that had flowing water plummeting into a lagoon below whilst hanging onto my ropes with the full force of my fear. We went down in pairs and I genuinely don’t think I could’ve done it without Trish being on the rope next to me! The rocks were slippy and half-way down the abseil I had a terrifying moment where I fell to my knees. Somehow, maybe by some kind of divine force, I made it back onto my feet and carried on through the incredible force of the water crashing into my body. The rope ran out at about 7ft from the water below (this was the plan don’t worry) and so we had no choice but to jump and free fall into the lagoon. I had flashbacks to my bungee jump I did whilst fund-raising and after swearing very very loudly to myself I let my fear go, as I did the rope, and the next thing I know I was clambering up to the rocks panting and pretty darn proud of myself! I still can’t quite believe I did it, before this year if someone had told me I’d be doing that I would have laughed in their face. I have put a photo up to prove it, both to you and to myself that I didn’t just dream it all!

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We were sad to leave Dalat with it’s quaint coffee shop-fronts and thrill-seeking adventures but we had our last destination to get to. I am in fact not planning on making this blog post into a novel, don’t worry- I just don’t want you to miss out!

A 3 hour mini bus journey stood between us and our next exciting destination on our travels. How bad could it be? Oh, what a question to ask whilst on the roads in South East Asia. I like to refer to that 3 hour journey as a ‘near-death experience.’ One I will not be repeating again unless completely unconscious and so unable to feel the same gut-clenching feeling of thinking each bump of the journey as an opportunity for a dramatic collision. The driver was, in a couple words, completely nuts. The vehicle turned up to our Dalat guesthouse and we assumed it was taking us to another bus, maybe like the brilliant sleeper ones we had so far experienced? As we raced out of the city limits onto those afore-mentioned mountain roads, I had an uneasy feeling that the bus was in fact a myth and this beat-up van we were crammed into was our cage for the next 3 hours. I was right. 25 passengers in total were squashed into this tiny mini-bus along with all the luggage. The seats were damp and I had a suitcase wheel lodged into my side. Thankfully Mui Ne is only 3 hours away from Dalat, we’d endured 17 hours from Cambodia to Ho Chi Minh, across the border, so the 3 hours should’ve passed relatively in no time at all. Each time the driver saw a pot-hole he seemed to speed up so that the small bus would gain some air-time as it sailed across them. When we pulled up in Mui Ne and I staggered out with my backpack I hugged the ground and thanked our lucky stars. It’s definitely something all people that travel go through but I was unbelievably glad it was over!

From a dramatic bus ride, we collapsed into our hostel beds in the beautiful Mui Ne. Although over-run with Russian tourist shops the place had a really lovely holiday feeling and some great restaurants. The beach was beautiful and the waves were a lot kinder to us, allowing some much needed sea-time! After a day relaxing in the sun, we again decided to look for some adventure and had heard about the beauty of the ‘red sand dunes.’ A lovely man at a local BBQ place booked us on his jeep tour for the day. A complete bargain we were expecting maybe a car with a painted ‘JEEP’ sign on it or something. Yet the next morning a real Jeep turned up, if somewhat weather-beaten with our driver who of course spoke little to no English (a lot of pointing to watches and thumbs up ensued.) We felt pretty bad-ass as we sped down the coastal roads into Mui Ne’s incredible natural views. Our first stop was something called ‘Fairy Springs’. I still have no idea why it has that name, it was a stream which we walked down that was lined with the most spectacular orange and white rock formations. It looked like a mini-canyon and like nothing I’ve ever seen before! We also encountered an ostrich-riding centre that is apparently very popular but just looked a bit cruel really, still managed to get a photo with the giant bird though! We then stopped to take some photos of the panoramic harbour views before heading off to the white sand dunes. Mui Ne has several large expanses of desert-like sands, some white and some orangey-red depending on the rocks in the area. The white ones were incredible and it felt like we again had been transported into a completely different part of the world, Dalat felt a million miles away! We decided to rent out two quad-bikes to navigate around the dunes, which was absolutely amazing. Trish was the driver and I clung for dear life as she decided to re-enact some form of extreme quadbiking! I took a thousand photos of the sand whipping around us as the huge dunes surrounded us and we raced wherever we wanted. I have a particularly good video of us almost rolling the quad-bike, pretty much shows our skills at controlling the thing… As if the day could get any better we sped off in the Jeep once again to catch the sunset over the red dunes. The setting sun slowly turned the orange sands to a fiery red and we took silhouetted jumping photos with the dunes as our incredible surroundings.

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So, if you’ve made it this far and read all of the above I think you should get some kind of award really. After our time in Mui Ne we headed back to Cambodia and started our new year at our projects. I think you can see why it took me so long to post about Vietnam, it is a somewhat epic story and I don’t really write things half-arsed so at a word count of 4,500 words this is my longest blog to date! I will soon be posting about 2013 in Cambodia, there are lots of stories still to tell. Since I came back in January, my boyfriend has visited, my parents have visited and we have seen Khmer New Year come and go. With under 4 months left on this incredible journey, I don’t want it to ever end.

As always can I say a massive thank you, to everyone who has been holding out for this post and those who made it to the end!

Until next time (in the next month I swear I will write, even if it kills me!) x

Post-Christmas Post!

I cannot believe I haven’t written a post since I was back from Sihanoukville! I honestly don’t know where time goes here.

The scary thing is in ten days or so I will have been away from home for 5 whole months, that’s almost half a year gone! Our desk officer at project trust is coming out to visit at the beginning of Feb. for her 6 months visit and will be giving us letters we wrote to ourselves 6 months ago at our Training week on Coll (will be interesting to see If I’ve changed!)

I think what I’m trying to say, apart from the obvious ‘time flies’, is that my whole perspective of time has really changed out here. At home the continuous years of school felt secure and planned out, each summer I knew that after 6 weeks I’d be back in school with new textbooks and a badass set of stationary from Smiths. Yet now life seems so much more unknown and exciting really, I feel like 6th form was years ago and can’t really imagine myself being back at AHS worrying about the politics homework I haven’t done (again…) I have Edinburgh uni to look forward to when I’m home but even then I have no idea what those 4 years will bring! As days turn into weeks and weeks into months I know that this amazing adventure of a year out in Cambodia will be over before I know it.

Anyway why I don’t I tell you what I’ve actually been up to? As usual it’s hard to know where to start as I’ve left it a ridiculously long time!! December was a crazy crazy month and went by in a blur, I felt like I didn’t do anything that wasn’t related to Christmas in that time! Whether it was planning for the huge Christmas party we held for over 400 children or sorting out lessons, all whilst hunting down Christmas presents for the kids in the local markets, I was constantly busy. Needless to say by the time our holidays came on the 28th of December we were ready for a break. I’m currently still in Vietnam! Yes Vietnam and not Thailand, we changed our plans quite dramatically last minute but that’s all for a different blog post when I’m back in Cambodia (stay tuned and all that.)

-FAST FORWARD TWO WEEKS-

So you know how I was saying time flies? Yeah well I never finished this blog post 2 weeks ago and so that pretty much is a demonstration of how ridiculously busy I’ve been!!

I am no longer in Vietnam, having travelled back last Tuesday and am now very much back into the thick of it at Honour Village! We have more volunteers than ever before which means more organising than ever before, plus lesson plans, plus developing a new Kindergarten, all equals a very busy Lucy that neglects important blog posts! I think this has to be the longest I’ve left between posts which is a shame as it means I probably will leave out (intentionally and unintentionally) a lot of experiences I’ve had. I promise (as always) to be a bit more committed to this blog.

Believe it or not this is a post all about December and that big festival everyone celebrates each year… I think it’s called Christmas? Yeah I know it was so long ago now but bear with me and pretend it was last week so I don’t feel as guilty… haha!

The first major Christmas event we had was a Carol concert at the very much five star Sofitel Hotel. That was on the 6th of December and was the first of FIVE, yes five Carol concerts that we held with the kids. All the children have been learning Christmas carols and songs since about April 2012. That is some hardcore preparation and if anyone sings Feliz Navidad to me again I may just about go insane… However it was so much fun being involved in something musical with them all! I’ve really missed being able to play music as it was such a huge part of my life back in the UK but I had the opportunity to create a whole programme of accompaniments with xylophone, hand drums and even a small glockenspiel! It was a really rewarding experience as I got to work with one of the older boys, teaching him the main tunes and introductions to the carols. He did so well in every performance, not feeling the pressure of being on a stage and in front of so many people; I have to say I think we made a great team!! Our main role in the concerts was to sing as loudly as possible (I felt really bad for any audience members near me) and encourage the kids to be confident. That is what the concerts were all about in the first place. None of the children at Honour Village will ever sing or dance for their own benefit as it’s often part of the nature of corrupt orphanages to use their kids almost as an enterprise which is morally wrong on a whole load of levels. Instead, any money that was donated went straight to Angkor Children’s Hospital in Siem Reap. It not only taught the kids about giving back to another organisation in need but they had a chance to sing and be listened to, which ultimately gives them the confidence to do almost anything! I don’t think I’d be the person I am today if I hadn’t forced myself to perform in countless school and music concerts, overcoming the nerves and feeling like I achieved something when I didn’t screw it all up!

The Sofitel Hotel concert is something I will never forget, it stands out as the most extravagant place I think I’ve ever been in my whole life. Trish and I were overwhelmed by the sheer size of this place, we could only imagine what all the kids thought! Each hotel we visited to perform at gave the kids a free meal and loads of Christmas sweets to take back to Honour Village as a thank you. We performed at Sofitel once at the beginning of December for their Christmas lights turning on and then once at the Paul De Brulle school of hospitality (where one of our boys hopefully wants to go one day to be a chef!) and finally 3 concerts at the Grand Soluxe Hotel. There was a hilarious moment on the Christmas Eve performance where the hotel decided a smoke machine would be necessary (this is along with a 10ft Santa ice sculpture…) Guess who was sat in front of the machine? No other than yours truly of course! Trying to play xylophone with dry ice floating dramatically around my head is definitely one of the harder challenges I’ve had to undertake!  I think next year Sue is limiting it to 3 maximum as it was very chaotic and we all felt the last rendition of Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer was performed with just a tad of relief.

Needless to say the concerts definitely made a lot of people’s Christmases extra special, often people were moved to tears by some of the numbers and nearly all the volunteers were weeping by the time the little ones had picked up their mini tambourines and jangly bells to wave around. The whole experience of carol singing with the kids in these new and strange places brought us all closer and has to be one of the highlights of my year so far! Every time I hear a Christmas song that we sang together I will be able to picture them all in their red t-shirts and matching santa hats (all 47 of them) belting their hearts out in accented English, somehow sounding so much better than the originals.

As well as the business of the Carol concert rehearsals and performances, we planned a giant Christmas Party which was held on Sunday 23rd December. That again I think is one of mine and Trish’s greatest achievements this year. We organised with Sue and a handful of other great volunteers a big event held at Honour Village with 5 different game ‘stations’ that included pass the parcel, talent shows, dancing games and even a showing of Christmas Shaun the Sheep! Everything had to be thought out beforehand from how to organise the children into teams, to how we were going to find enough prizes and wrapping for 40 pass the parcels!

The whole day was a massive success thanks to the help of so many volunteers who turned up especially and worked crazily hard until the last village child had cycled their bike through the gate, at which point we all collapsed with the leftover banana bread, talking excitedly and slightly deliriously (from exhaustion) about the crazy numbers of kids who turned up! I am proud to say that over 400 children benefited from our hard work and each went home with a Christmas present thanks to an amazingly generous donation from a primary school in Australia. I don’t think I’ll be able to wrap another pass the parcel for a couple of years though…! My personal role was as pass the parcel leader in one of the rooms and explaining the concept of the game became the main entertainment for most of the kids as I ran around miming the ripping of the layers. Each parcel had loads of forfeits in too (lovingly handwritten in English of course!) which also became my role to mime, I’m now an expert at ‘eating raisins with no hands.’ It was so much fun to meet so many local kids and see them all win prizes when most haven’t had a gift their whole lives!

However the day itself wasn’t even the best bit! Once most of the children had left and only the resident HVC kids remained that was when the massive sound system turned up…

So in Cambodia you can hire a club worthy set of speakers about the size of a small house for four hours for at I think roughly… 14 dollars? That works out about 10 quid. Crazy stuff! It arrived on a ramshackle pick up and parked itself in the middle of our playing field where it then cranked out hip hop and gangnam style for the next 4/5 hours. Gangnam style was played no less than 6 times, more if you count dodgy remixes with J-Lo’s ‘On the Floor.’ If I don’t know the full dance routine to that song by the time I get back I will have failed Cambodia and all it’s Gangnam obsessed kids!! In Khmer weddings and parties they make a circle around something (a table, a box, a dog, whatever happens to be around) and sort of rhythmically step around in a clockwise direction whilst gracefully moving their hands. Really hard to describe but look up Apsara dancing and you’ll kind of get the idea… They all love trying to teach us these dances and especially like to laugh when we fail completely! I think I have about as much Apsara grace as a horse.

Talking of weddings we were invited to our second in December. This was for one of the Honour Village house mothers! So it was a bit more of a special event as we knew the bride personally. Needless to say she was transformed with bronze hair spray and the most amazing satin dresses into an unrecognisable khmer goddess!! We were so happy to see her getting married and had some more crazy traditional khmer food, including the good ol’ black chicken soup and spicy mango salad (blew my head off with half a chilli by accident…) All of the house mothers and staff from HVC came along as well as some other volunteers and it was so much fun seeing everyone a little bit tipsy, dancing to yet more hip hop.

The actual day of Christmas was probably the most hectic and unique I will ever have the opportunity to experience! Our friends Sally and Lucy from Phnom Penh who are also volunteering with Project Trust came up on Christmas Eve to watch the kids perform at The Grand Soluxe Hotel and of course laugh at me and Trish in our fetching Santa outfits. We all stayed up together until midnight and pulled crackers when the clock struck 12 and our Cambodian Christmas had begun! I think we were all a bit delirious and went crazy with crackers our family had sent us and ate a LOT of chocolate. Me and Trish were then up a mere 5 hours later, not to see if Santa had brought our gifts but to start our 17 hour day!! We ate our cake and chocolate breakfast and actually wore our jumpers… yes it was kind of cold here on Christmas day, clearly trying to make us feel a bit more at home! We loaded onto the coach with all of the HVC children and sang carols all the way to the hotel for our first performance at a lovely and early 7 am.

Then we headed back to Honour Village slightly exhausted and full of Christmas feeling to watch about 3 or 4 hours of Tom and Jerry, Shaun the Sheep and Pingu! I’m pretty sure that rivals all of the usual Christmas telly on at home… Everyone fell asleep on pillows in front of the T.V. (Trish and I included!) Then we had a break to open all our presents back at our house before heading back with the girls to watch the HVC kids open their Christmas presents!!! Definitely the most exciting part of the day as we’d worked hard with Sue to ask each child what they wanted for Christmas and to scour the markets of Siem Reap. From Angry Bird belts to Khmer custom CDs, the range of gifts was huge and again funded by the amazingly generous Australian donors! Watching the kids’ faces was the best part as one by one the bags were opened and they each received something brand new, specially for them- something some of them will have no concept of! Cambodians are not materialistic in a lot of ways which means often in big families children rarely have any of their own possessions, either hand downs or shared between a large number, something every child at Honour Village will have grown up with.

Later on we headed back to the same hotel for our very last carol concert which ended around 8:30pm. After being up since 5am we were pretty exhausted. Yet our day was not over! We had of course booked a full Christmas dinner at an Irish Pub in Siem Reap, where we stayed until about 11pm in the end. A very tasty turkey dinner it was, but nothing compared to home cooking (just in case Dad and Nell are reading this…) Really we should’ve gone for something crazily un-turkey-meal-like but I was craving mashed potato so badly!! I had a chance to Skype all my family on a terrible connection for about 20 minutes back home in York which made my day, getting to see all my little cousins so grown up-  have to say it did make me a bit emotional but in a happy way (must’ve looked a bit crazy wrapped in tinsel skyping from the balcony of an Irish pub in Cambodia but I couldn’t care less!)

I have to say that although I was away from my home and my family and my Dad’s roast potatoes, I had a really special and unforgettable Christmas. Mainly thanks to the amazing people I’ve met from this experience (TRISH and all the Project Trust girls!) and getting to spend a Christmas with so many young children who although don’t believe in Santa or Jesus, do believe in the joy of receiving gifts and the chance to eat as many sweets as humanly possible.

So although this is a very much delayed and overdue post-Christmas post, I’m glad I finally got round to telling you all about this amazing experience! It seems so long ago now due to our crazy adventures in Vietnam and it’s now almost a month since the day itself but hope you managed to get some insight into how being away from home at a time like Christmas doesn’t necessarily end in crying down the phone to your parents, alone – but that it can be equally as amazing half way across the world with the right people and let’s be honest, 47 incredible children!

My next post is going to be all about VIETNAMMM wooooo! That will be another essay as I take you across the South of Vietnam where we encountered near-death minibus rides, a NYE street party with 8 million Vietnamese people, experienced quad biking across sand dunes and of course my epic canyoning adventure – I’m basically a pro abseiler now just to let you all know.

Much love to you all. I cannot believe you’ve had so much snow!!

I’ve been here for exactly 5 months and 5 days!?! Woah. xxx

The Adventures of Koh Rong and Sihanoukville!

I’M STILL ALIVEEEE! Just so you know and contrary to the fact I have completely neglected this poor poor blog and of course letting down all my avid readers by not updating you until now! You can all stop holding your breath and checking the page every day as I have decided to relieve you and post a wonderfully detailed essay of my most recent adventures into the unknown of Cambodia…

However I’ll just give you a brief update on things in Siem Reap as it’s been a while since I wrote about the project and my volunteering! Honour Village is running smoothly as usual and Sue is currently in Singapore buying all the Christmas presents for the children and local village children too. Huge amounts of money were donated by Australian primary school children to HVC so they could all open something amazing on Christmas Day. Me and Trish are crazily excited for Christmas here, even though it’ll be hard to miss the amazing roast turkey dinner my family make every year – oh and of course my actual family’s presence at the dinner table! But we’re dedicated to making this Christmas really special for HVC and we get some exciting responsibilities for it. First I get the chance to show my epic wrapping skills because there are about 50 different presents which will need Christmas paper to carefully disguise them in magical Christmas mystery. I have images of me and Trish the night before wrapped in sellotape and bleeding to death from paper cuts but I’m going to somehow track down Michael Buble’s Christmas album so we can at least suffer to his dulcet tones and get into the Christmas spirit. We also get to organise one or maybe even two Christmas parties the weekend before with loads of games and food and activities plus a crapload of decorations which I cannot wait to make. Being here has definitely made me realise how much I love Christmas and I’ve decided when I have my own house it’s going to be crazy at Christmas every year! But anyway all of that is still 3 and a half weeks or so away, though I cannot believe its December already.

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Apart from getting excited for Christmas, we’re still very much into the swing of teaching English and I feel my classes are making progress which is so exciting to see. I’ve learnt so much already about how to teach and discipline the kids whilst being creative enough to make learning about spellbinding things like colours actually interesting and exciting (not sure if I managed it but there was some serious colouring that went on…) It’s crazy how much HVC feels like home, all the kids are our family as cheesy as that sounds. We missed them so much this holiday and when we got back they all ran up to us and gave us huge hugs saying how much they’d missed their ‘chas’ (teachers haha.) That’s why I’m not fussed at all about teaching Christmas day! I get to spend Christmas with this second family I have here, plus I’m going to Thailand for 2 weeks the day after so y’know life is pretty good. 😉 Currently I’m sat in bed typing away at 7:30am which is the time I wake up every day so a lie in is now impossible, pretty gutting but means I get more out of my Saturday I guess! I have images of me at university waking up at the crack of dawn and having to somehow fill my mornings as everyone else sleeps until 12 noon… maybe I’ll become one of those jogging types or a crazy Buddhist yoga child, who knows!

Anyway getting onto a huge tangent and there is still so much to tell you! Last week on Thursday night after a Christmas Carol practice with the kids we headed off on our first proper proper holiday. Beaches, sun, sea, cocktails, lying around reading and doing nothing – that was the purpose of this little trip and by god did we fulfil those dreams! Our ambitions to be as lazy as possible took us down to the South Coast of Cambodia to a place called Sihanoukville and then onto quite literally Paradise Island, more commonly known as Koh Rong. If I had enough money I would buy my own beach hut there, it is truly one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen or had the amazing opportunity to be. I cannot wait to go back before the year ends! Sihanoukville however not so much, unfortunately it’s a town which has been ravaged by backpacker drinking tourism and to describe it as a little seedy would be an understatement, though we managed to have a couple of good nights out there.

Before I get into all that I need to describe our exciting travel tale of the sleeper bus! Our first and probably not our last experience of the transport I’m sure. The bus left Siem Reap at 8pm and arrived in Sihanoukville around 6am the next morning, so that’s roughly 10 hours trying to sleep on a Cambodian style coach. Not exactly a recipe for a successful nights rest but we were actually pleasantly surprised! The coach itself looked like something out of a Harry Potter film, think night bus style but more Asian in design due to the beds being in two storeys and so overlaid you were pretty much lying beneath the person in front! Plus they were in pairs so if you got placed next to a random there could be some awkward spooning occurring, luckily me and Trish know each other well enough by now not to mind! There was a tiny isle that I could barely walk down and a less than 5 star toilet but the beds were actually pretty cosy and once tucked into my blanket and after scoffing a packet of Oreos I managed to get a solid 6 hours.

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However the lowlights of the trip were definitely trying to use the not so 5 star toilet whilst the coach navigated the treacherous pot-hole-filled roads of Cambodia, ending up with me being thrown against the side of the door into the aisle, a bit awkward for the guy who was unlucky enough to get the bed opposite the door and also painful for me. I’m also pretty sure I was airborne in my sleep several times due to the fact Cambodian drivers are also psychopaths and don’t understand a coach doesn’t have the suspension of a formula 1 car. Luckily as some of you know I sleep through literally anything so I managed to somehow adjust myself to the rickety journey and get some shuteye. The coach on the way back however was AWFUL, probably one of the worst travel experiences of my life. Why was it so different to first journey, surely the same bus company would mean a similar experience? Unfortunately the bus home was a lot less luxurious, busier, more cramped, had not just 3 but 4 young babies on board and the driver left late so drove at unbelievable speeds the whole night, making my moments of being airborne pretty much permanent and there was no toilet at all this time! Not so fun, but alas part of the Cambodian experience and in general a rite of passage I feel every traveller in S.E. Asia must overcome.

So once we arrived into a rather overcast Sihanoukville at 6am, we were feeling pretty bleak but still excited for the promise of the holiday ahead. Now it was time to find accommodation! Surely you booked that before you got there, right? A sensible thought you must all be having. HAHA. Apparently Sihanoukville backpacker places ‘don’t book’ so it’s pretty much turn up and get luck of the draw! We had our eye on a placed called Monkey Republic so bartered with a tuk to take us there. We arrived and of course everywhere was shut as it was 7am on a Friday morning. I asked about rooms at Monkey Rep. and was told there was only a room for 3, a slight problem as 5 of us would be staying the night in total. Despairing we asked our tuk tuk driver where to go and he confidently assured us of a top quality place around the corner which would have plenty of room for us. For some reason I felt like I was in the bloody Nativity being turned away from every Inn we asked at and had crazy thoughts of us sleeping Jesus style on a bed of hay on the beach somewhere, pretty sure that was from lack of sleep on a night bus though.

So we headed to this ‘great’ place the guy knew and sat and ate pancakes feeling a bit glum that Monkey Rep. had let us down, but I had a chocolate milkshake so definitely a silver lining to that cloud! We waited for about an hour to see the room this place had available. Needless to say it was one of the dingiest rooms I have ever seen in my life, pretty much looked like a place from a horror film and though assured it was clean and ‘had great t.v. with big big screen’ we could not have got out of that place faster. We didn’t die from the pancakes though so it could’ve gone a lot worse. SO THEN we headed back to Monkey Rep. where I was pretty much getting to the point of offering my soul for an extra room when we were saved and told, yes 2 rooms for 5 people were free for that night! I could’ve hugged the guy! We settled in for a nap and waited for Sally and Lucy to arrive from Phnom Penh. I forgot to mention me and Trish went on this holiday with our lovely friend Emily from Australia who is a volunteer currently at HVC. She leaves Cambodia next Thursday after spending 6 weeks here and we will miss her so so much, but another excuse to visit Oz in the future!

That night after being re-united with Sally and Lucy (we hadn’t seen them since our language course in September!) we all headed out into Sihanoukville to have some fun and get a few drinks. We’d heard legendary things about the nightlife and I was expecting a full kind of ‘strip’ filled with beach bars and clubs. Unfortunately Sihanoukville in general was a huge let down! Of course we all still had a great night as we were with each other and company is what matters most but after ending up at the only decent bar around called ‘The Dolphin Shack’ and a woman telling me that no she wouldn’t play the Black Keys as they were crap (BLASPHEMY I TELL YOU!!!) we were a little disappointed. It didn’t feel safe and the whole place was teeming with drugs and just in general really rundown and in parts very creepy! It didn’t ruin the holiday at all as we all had loads of fun dancing like idiots and walking across the beach at dawn but I think the hype was definitely overrated. This is why I’m so glad we spent the majority of our holiday on Koh Rong!!

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We caught the boat over to the island the next morning, a little hungover and so after 2 hours of slow rocking motion we were all feeling pretty green. However the views from the boat were so amazing, I went to town with my camera (see facebook!) Our first sighting of the island was so exciting, it looked like something out of a film and just one of those places you know exists in the world but you’re not sure they’re actually real until you see it! We set foot upon the island and entered paradise. White sands, crystal blue seas, beachside bamboo bungalows, chilled out bars and beautiful lush green palm trees. I couldn’t actually believe my eyes as we walked down to Monkey Island to get checked into our bungalow. The accommodation was amazing and even better than I could have hoped for. We were put into the most recently built bungalow that was literally on the beach. I woke up and went to sleep to the sound of the crashing waves of the ocean every day. The bungalow had a little balcony with two hammocks and the most breath-taking views of the island’s stunning beach. Needless to say we wasted no time in getting out and tanning (for me that’s just trying not to burn basically) and as we lay on our towels a stone throw away from our stunning beach hut, I’m much sure all of us sighed in pure happiness.

Koh Rong Beach!

Ben and Becky, the two Australian volunteers who we met when we first arrived at HVC, they actually live and work on this island currently and it was part of the reason we made the trip there so we could catch up with them since they left! Ben works as a diving instructor, the main attraction of the island (not Ben, the diving haha!) Becky works in the diving office and it was so nice to see them both again and hear about their lives on the island. We spent our days there chilling out on the beach, eating amazing food- for such a small place there was a seriously good choice of bbq- and pretty much letting any of the stresses of everyday volunteering fall from our shoulders. Quite literally as I even had a shoulder massage!

My favourite day was when we trekked over to the other side of the island which is uninhabited apart from a handful of remote bungalows. We were told it was an hour’s walk to the other side which seemed easy enough, so we donned our flip flops and towels and set off on a little adventure. 2 hours later and we quickly realised the ‘walk’ was in fact some kind of mountaineering hike involving sheer boulder drops involving sliding on your bum and holding onto tree roots for dear life. There was even some abseiling involved when a rope became the only method of making it down a sheer rock face. Needless to say we were all regretting the footwear choice and had some slightly despairing moments when the path seemed to be non-existent! It was actually so much fun and the island is incredible, it was like trekking through rainforest and being in tomb raider or something equally as cheesy! I’m actually really proud of us for making it to the other side alive and without all breaking our legs so that’s an achievement we’ve made this year for sure. Our reward was so worth it, miles of deserted beach even more beautiful than the one on the other side if that was even possible! We spent the day lying in the sun and swimming in the sea which is actually warm, a new concept I need to get used to after holidaying in Scotland! Rather than attempting the journey back on foot, as the sun set we clambered hilariously onto a small fishing boat and were all driven back instead. It was definitely a day I’ll never forget!

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On our last day in Koh Rong and after 3 amazing nights by the sea, the girls all went diving! Unfortunately I couldn’t take part due to my failure of a set of lungs haha but I’m working on getting a doctor’s note for next time so my asthma won’t stand in the way! Instead I was the photographer/snorkeler of the day and still took part in all the training ready for the next opportunity. It was amazing to watch them all go under with all the breathing equipment and apparently they saw a barracuda! We also all jumped off the top deck of the boat into the water after they finished which was so fun, if a little terrifying (but then again I did bungee from a crane in London last year, so no biggie…)

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Needless to say we were gutted to leave Ben and Becky and our little Paradise, back to Sihanoukville for one more night before heading home! It was a bit of a nightmare trying to get accommodation once back on the mainland as it was the Khmer holiday of The Water Festival so everywhere was booked out! By some crazy coincidence and sheer luck we ended up in an amazing room, paying 10 dollars each but it even had a BATH in the bathroom- a very very very rare thing. We had a great last night out even if it meant we ended up yet again at the glorious ‘Dolphin Shack’ and I already miss the girls so much. I don’t think we’ve ever felt so rough the next day but it was worth it – may I add we had pizza at 4am in the morning, the ultimate show of a good night I think.

That was our amazing holiday! Of course ending with the perilous journey home but I think we are relieved to be back in Siem Reap, it makes us realise how lucky we are to be in this part of Cambodia. It’s such a nice place to live day-to-day and we’re looking forward to spending a night back in our favourite guesthouse and watching some bad t.v. J

Thanks for reading these ramblings once again and I promise to be a much better and more dedicated blog writer this month.  We’re currently planning our Thailand trip so it seems hardly any time before we’ll be setting off again, this time for another country!! I promise it’s not all holidays and we do actually work really hard day-to-day with the kids, even if it sounds like a tanning-spree at the moment! This holiday definitely made me realise how hard it will be to eventually leave them, as after 6 days we wanted to go back. Luckily I have another 8 months or so before I have to even think about that possibility, time is flying out here and 3 months in I couldn’t be happier. I miss everyone a lot of course and it’s a constant emotional rollercoaster but as with every blog post I write I’ll tell you again that it is so worth it to be here and be experiencing these amazing opportunities.

Until next time!

Much love to everyone, hope the Christmas songs in the shops don’t drive you too crazy and it’s not too cold… 😉 xxx

 

Battambang, Bamboo and Bats!

Over 2 weeks have flown by once again and it’s time to update you all! Scrap that, I tried to post this last week and ran out of internet and time, standard Cambodia.

When I last wrote, Trish and I were setting off for our first travel adventure into the unknown Cambodia, more specifically to the little quiet town of Battambang (or Battambong, take your pick.)

We travelled up on the Saturday morning with the kiwi Anita and also Karina who is from Denmark. It was so nice to spend some time with those two, as often it really is just me and Trish (luckily I’m not sick of her… yet! 😉 After about 4 hours on a much nicer bus experience than our Phnom Penh to Siem Reap journey, we pulled up into what was vaguely the centre of town. Hilariously, all the tuk tuk drivers were holding up signs and banging on the side of the bus, especially to us, as white skin of course means lots of money! (I wish.) It was pretty much a battle to get off the bus and find the guy who was holding our hotel sign up, when we carried our stuff over to him you could tell the guy thought christmas had come early (or the Cambodian equivalent anyway!)

Our hotel for the weekend was the Sen Hout hotel. Pretty standard and just a cavernous space with hundreds of rooms that not many people seemed to be occupying… However it was the family holiday ‘Pchum bem’ which is when all the Cambodian families gather together to respects dead family members. Cheery stuff! It actually meant that the whole town was even more quiet than usual, not exactly a partying weekend, but more of a photo op. kind of holiday. We had a wander around the ‘centre’ of town which all pretty much looked like the outskirts of Siem Reap. The people were amazingly friendly though and we were hardly harassed compared to SR which was a breath of fresh air! No shouts of ‘Lady, tuk tuk?!’ whilst walking down the street was actually kind of eerie. There is one small market there which has the unmistakable stench of rotting fish and veg, probably not a place to sit al fresco eating your lunch but me and Trish managed to locate some of the most ‘gap yah’ clothes imaginable. Tie-dye t-shirts. OH YES you read that right! We are now the proud owners of some oversized tie-dye clothing, and will show you photos so you can feast your eyes upon these amazingly stylish garments as soon as is humanly possible.

The main event of our Saturday was something called the Bamboo train!! We tuk tuked out of the town into the lush countryside. Once we arrived at a pretty shackled together station, the bamboo train was laid before us in all its glorious mechanic wonder. Basically it’s a plank of bamboo which rests on two metal bars, with what looks like a small boat engine attached. They use the abandoned rail tracks left from the French colonial period, so the health and safety of the thing isn’t exactly UK standard to say the least! Clambering, somewhat apprehensively aboard our bamboo carriage we were whisked away into the thick foresty jungles of Cambodia. Surprisingly the ‘train’ goes really fast so we were all screaming for about the first 5 minutes, but settled down after we realised that the person driving does this a lot and we weren’t going to plummet to our deaths in the jungle. One of the strangest things about these bamboo trains is that when two meet each other on the single tracks, going in opposite directions, one has to be dismantled temporarily whilst the other passes it. This means we got up quite a few times to let people travelling back down the tracks go past. An interesting solution to one set of rail tracks!! The whole experience was just awesome, the views were unbelievable. Rice paddies stretching out for miles under a low sun that cast a golden halo on everything it touched. This was the real Cambodia, rural and untouched. We took about a million photos and filmed the journey so I’ll have to find a way to share it with you. When we stopped for a break halfway, this old Khmer man took us into his hut thing and gave us a seat. Then a load of children swarmed on us! We instantly worried that they’d try to sell us things and make us uncomfortable, but instead and to our happy surprise, they made (very much free) grass bracelets and rings for us! Mostly they just wanted to practice their English and laugh at our windswept hair. I remember thinking how peaceful the place was, just the set of railway tracks next to some small huts in the middle of nowhere. Beautiful but so remote! After we got back to the hotel, we headed out to grab some food and managed to each have a huge plate of pancakes. Pancakes = happy Lucy. For main I had fish amok, not sure if I mentioned amok before but it’s this amazing coconut curry sauce that’s just incredibly good and insanely cheap. That basically sums up Khmer food in general.

On our way back to the hotel, we spotted what looked like a film showing. This was really strange considering about 80% of the shops or places on the street were closed, so it stuck out massively. It turned out to be a French gallery showing video art! Hello Lucy’s pretentious dream of an evening. Me and Trish decided to stay and watch some seriously cool pieces before heading back and nearly being mugged by what seemed to be a drugged up 17 year-old. Not exactly our best end to an evening but we ran the rest of the way home, so some great exercise… ? Haha! Laughing at those kinds of scary situations together is really the only way to deal with them.

The next day we had a trip, first to a small café to have the unhealthiest fry up imaginable, and then to Phnom Sampeau which is just outside of the Battambang town. This was my favourite day because it combined riding a moto with amazing views, temples and seeing a crazy load of bats! We arrived at the base of the mountain on a beautiful day, hopped on the back of mopeds and drove up to the sight of miles and miles of Cambodian countryside. It seems to stretch on forever, I mean I call this place a ‘mountain’ it was hardly a blip on the horizon. The whole country is so flat that you get this kind of permanent panoramic feeling when you look at the sky, it swallows up so much of your vision. The moped journey itself was hilarious, as I’m not exactly the kind of person who would usually sit on the back of a fast moving 2 wheeled thing- especially when it was travelling up 95 degree angle, bumpy slopes and jumping over potholes at crazy speeds. We made it unscathed to the first part of the mountain and went into an intricately painted new pagoda – every surface was covered in colourful inscriptions and scenes of the Buddhist texts. So so striking and unusual, it looked out onto the panoramic views I described earlier.

We then ventured down to the home of the ghostly ‘killing caves.’ Even by the name of them I didn’t think they’d be a happy place to visit, but it was so chilling. The caves were used by the Khmer Rouge to bury a lot of the dead and also a place of mass executions. There was the main cave used for burying the old people, and hundreds of skeletons were recovered after the terror of the regime ended. The caves themselves are huge and actually amazingly beautiful, natural places. Leaves and vine wind their way down the ragged edges as light from the sun dappled the interior, giving it a spiritual feel. However once we knew the real use of the caves originally, the mind takes over and manipulates every shadow into the most terrifying symbol. There were cases of skulls and a giant golden Buddha lying on its side, situated inside the cave itself. Once we clambered down the steps we each gave a donation and were given a red bracelet of luck, to take as a reminder of our visit. The worst part of the trip came as we headed back up to the temple. Our moto driver who doubled up as a kind of free tour guide (again a chance to practice English) showed us a much smaller opening to cave we couldn’t see into. He then describe in almost too graphic detail how this was used as the ‘baby cave’. It’s worse than you think, it wasn’t only used to bury dead children but also a place to execute them. The Khmer Rouge would take the babies, usually aged 1 or under and kill them with the rocks by the cave’s entrance before throwing them into the pit below. Unbelievably horrific and sad to find out so many young, innocent lives were wasted there. Each time we visit somewhere, some of it has been touched by the suffering of Cambodia’s all-too recent past, which seems to taint so many beautiful places.

As long-term travellers here, we have to learn to take these kinds of horrible sites in our strides, accept it has happened and move on. The knowledge is enough to remember and commemorate what happened but if we dwell on the subject emotionally, we’d pretty much be in bits all the time. So with that attitude in mind, we all headed further up into the mountain. This is when we reached the highest point we could travel and stumbled upon the beautiful golden pagodas. Their tips touched the skies and the whole place was indescribably full of a kind of magic atmosphere. We wondered in awe around the temples barefoot, snapping the carvings and statues of gods, which again looked out onto spectacular views. There were families worshipping as part of Pchum bem and the smell of rich incense filled the air. We found a small cove which looked out onto this huge cliff face, the whole place was a geographer’s dream (even Trish had a nerdy moment about the stalagmites.)

 

It was then time to speed back down the mountain to watch the bats! This is another event Battambang is infamous for. Every night at twilight (god why does annoying Edward Cullen just have taint that word now…) thousands of bats fly out of the mouth of a cave high up the mountain which you can see from a spot right down below it. Lots of tourists and locals alike were gathered to watch as a slow stream of bats poured from the rockface, thickening as the light faded to dusk. Whilst marvelling at their crazy flying skills, we started to get rained on. Oh well, standard Cambodia. But wait. Turns out it wasn’t rain at all… It was bat pee! Lovely. I made sure I had a really hot shower when we got back to the hotel is all I can say.

Battambang is certainly a pretty deserted town centre, I don’t think they have many actual bars or clubs but then again why do you need that for a weekend break? We go out in Siem Reap when we can, and it was more a chance to escape somewhere new. The town is a crumbling collection of post-colonial architecture which should probably be pulled down and built again, yet that’s part of the charm. It seems like a place time forgot (pretty much stole that phrase out of lonely planet, I’ll be honest.) And when we headed home on our 6 hour scenic boat journey – it got a little too scenic at quite a few points and I thought we’d never see dry land again – I felt like we’d really recharged from the chaos of volunteering. Lastly I forgot to mention, on the boat trip we saw loads of floating villages! Shops and houses built of rafts that just sit on masses of open water and marshes, amazing stuff and definitely some good photos (although with really dodgy toilets that are just holes into the water…)

I’ll do a big Siem Reap update next weekend as otherwise you’ll never be released from my over –adjective-filled descriptions. As a summary:  just finished a first proper full week of teaching, without any public holidays; me and Trish had food poisoning last week; Sue had her 70th birthday; we swam with the kids last Sunday, I nearly drowned under the weight of 4 children andd we ate loads of cake. Again.

The only other news is that I had a bit of a bum week last week cause I was ill for 3 days! But a set of antibiotics later, I’m feeling much better. 🙂 Hope I’m not too shattered next week so I can fulfil that promise to blog, but thanks again to everyone who gives these ramblings a read.

Much much love to everyone, from a much sunnier Cambodia

xxx

Food, Feet and Family

To start this, yet again, overdue post I will prioritise and tell you all about our food discoveries since I last wrote! When you have a lack of television and extremely limited internet, the contents of a mini-fridge becomes strangely much more interesting…

On the last Sunday of September we took it upon ourselves to try out every café in the guide book by doing a sort of cycling tour of Siem Reap. Yes, cycling! Finally we have overcome our fear of traffic and been set loose on the pavements of Cambodia with a somewhat basic means of transport (there are no gears on bikes here, and not exactly the best brakes either.) I say ‘we’ have overcome, actually it’s more that I have managed to stop hyperventilating every time a giant 4×4 decides that it’s going to own the road which I’m pedalling along. It is certainly saving us a lot of money on tuk tuks and it’s a much better and quicker way than walking along in the scorching sunshine. Back to the more important subject here, the food. We decided to target 3 places and try out what they had to offer. However, we had foolishly undertaken this bold cycling adventure on a Sunday, when all cafes shut and it in one case are even demolished. Not exactly the best start to a food-filled plan of the day. Hot and sweaty (as is the usual state of things here) we pulled up by a place called F for Falafel. From the bikes to the entrance we were repeatedly harassed by tuk tuk drivers who had seconds earlier seen us lock up the bikes we’d been cycling… (Sometimes I think they do it just because they can.) Safe to say I had an amazing falafel experience and managed to get some houmous into the mix, which I didn’t think I’d be seeing again until I next raided the dip-filled fridge at my house back in England. We also had the best smoothies in the world. No this is not an exaggeration. They were AMAZING. And cheap.

Then as if this place we’d chanced upon could actually get any better, there was a talking parrot. Trish seemed to be pretty nonplussed, I think she’s seen them before. However I thought this was pretty much the best thing since sliced bread. The parrot/bird thing wolf whistled and then said ‘hello’ ‘what’s your name’ and ‘very pretty’. This sounds really unimpressive but it was with an ACTUAL HUMAN VOICE. I swear I just sat and tried to make the bird talk for about an hour. So much entertainment in one bird haha! 

Also on our fruitless café search we’d seen a place called ‘Common Grounds’ which looked amazing, so last weekend we made it our mission to go. Safe to say we spent about 6 hours in that café with the free wifi and steady flow of cakes/toasties. I don’t think I’ll ever take melted cheese for granted again. It’s so good! This place will definitely be a regular haunt for us this year, so it was really worth doing a bit of research on where to go.

Though not all of our food adventures have gone quite so smoothly… Last week I accidentally bought Trish and I bbqued frogs on sticks. I honestly thought it was tasty bits of pork or something! We’d polished off about half the frogs when I asked Trish if she thought the weird leg-like things attached to them were a bit odd. After asking one of the other volunteers, we were given the terrifying news that we’d tried a Cambodian delicacy. Trish freaked out and I wasn’t sure whether to be sick or carry on eating it. I think it tasted alright; it was bony but stuffed with lemongrass and garlic, so not too bad! Rather than just saying ‘it tasted like chicken’ which is how everyone seems to describe interesting food, it tasted like really strong and garlicky chicken! Next time we eat something creepy I’ll get a photo and show you all as evidence.

So much food news! I’ll finish with the fact I now have the beautiful condiment of MARMITE! The true food love of my life is back and currently staring at me from the surface above my fridge. Again a highlight of the past few weeks was spotting the yellow label in the food isles of Lucky Mall and having a mini celebration among the stupefied Korean shoppers.

Now to something not so delicious – Trish’s feet. The trials and tribulations of her poor toes has been a big development since I last wrote. She unluckily picked up a very nasty bacterial infection which she then had an allergic reaction to! I won’t post you a photo as it will definitely put you off your food for the next few weeks but it has been a bit of an ordeal. Rainy season often means the water which comes up to the roads contains some pretty bad parasites, which me and Trish have the luxury of cycling through daily!

However every cloud has a silver lining, and this one was getting to see inside the amazing International Angkor Hospital. So the typical image which springs to mind with hospitals back in the UK: busy, noisy, sterile, huge waiting lines, crying children, not enough beds, and of course free medical treatment. A private hospital like the one here is an entirely different experience. The hospital itself is deadly quiet. As the tuk tuk drives up to the grand palacial entrance, the thought that medical treatment is the main purpose of the architecture seems slightly surreal. The emergency entrance is empty, there are no bandaged drunkards or limbs in casts of small children. Instead there is simply a team of staff quietly waiting for the next rare patient to arrive. Trish’s feet when we first visited were so bad she was given a wheelchair (we both found this hilarious and yes I got it on camera.) Inside the hospital itself, high ceilings stretch into the sky and the floors blind you with their highly polished surfaces. After being consulted by a doctor who spoke fluent English, all of her huge blisters were burst (YUM.) Trish was so brave through it all! Then we went to the cashier, the next logical step with medical care here, and waited on plushy sofas in the grand entrance hall where paintings of the bayon temples hung among plasma screens. Every day we have to go back to get her dressings changed and the nurses (all men) work to the sound of a ticking clock. It sometimes feels like you’ve been in another world altogether when you step back outside and reality hits you with a hot humid impact. 

In this reality there are no general hospitals which administer free health care, if a poor person in a village nearby collapses from a heart attack, they will most likely die or be taken to a local doctor who will have very basic resources. As foreigners, we are in an incredibly lucky situation compared to the majority of people here and it pains me to think that the treatment Trish has received is unimaginable for so many.

More light-heartedly, before we encountered the hospital Trish was briefly seen by a doctor at a local clinic who looked like Jabba from Star Wars. I laughed about this for pretty much an hour when we got home and am not sure we will ever be able to go back to the clinic in case I accidentally call him ‘Dr. Jabba’.

The important thing in all of this is that Trish is on the mend! Her feet are slowly recovering and life is becoming a little easier for her day-by-day. I’ve told her to look back on it all as a great anecdote at uni of ‘that time on my gap yah’.

At HVC, it has been incredibly busy. Yep, I am actually still volunteering there and haven’t just abandoned it to stuff my face with food and write detailed descriptions of hospitals. We were scheduled to start the huge increase in teaching on October 1st. But this is Cambodia! So infact it took another week of sorting hundreds, almost thousands, of assements and registration forms to get a rough idea of the classes. Then on the first day we did teach, it was utter chaos. Half the children who had signed up never turned up, new ones turned up who hadn’t signed up and the others all either had incorrect spellings of their names or were lost into the muddle of things. After conquering the first full week of teaching 4 hours a day, we’re almost sorted. Almost. There is still a lot of shifting about and last minute lesson planning but after dealing with the first few days of confusion I feel I can handle anything! So far I’ve realised I’m a complete dragon when it comes to discipline and I have perfected the ‘scary face’ worryingly quickly. I owe all of that to Nell, who is excellent at telling people off without shouting – genuinely appreciate that skill now.

Currently I teach 4 different classes for a full hour of English tuition. My first class at 9am is with 4 boys from the village ranging in ages 16-25. I can safely say this is one of my favourite classes of the day! I’m teaching them to read but also to understand the stories they are reading, much easier said than done. I feel comfortable already which is really reassuring and enjoy it far more than I’d ever hoped! After my older boys, I have 8 students from HVC who are all at a similar level and are also developing their reading and understanding. Then from 11-2pm we have lunch and teacher’s meetings/planning lesson time. At 2pm I have another class of 11 children (this changes a lot) and teach them a variety of English conversation, so far covering basic introductions and opposites. At 3pm I have my last class who are again about 9-12 students depending on the day and I teach them a slightly advanced version of my previous lesson.

Overall, teaching 4 hours a day is draining. I have no idea how people teach full time and as a career! I know teaching foreign students is of course a whole new set of challenges but the basics remain the same. The amount of energy you have to put into keeping the full attention of everyone in your class is astounding and then there’s the problem of making sure they’re actually learning something… I can’t wait to improve my teaching this year and hope I can become good enough to make a real impact on their English abilities as its incredibly important for children hoping to get a decent job in the future.

Apart from teaching and chaos, we recently went to a pub quiz held in HVC’s honour at a place called ‘Rosy’s guesthouse’. It raised so much money! My team lost by miles (and I got a question wrong about Andy Warhol, unforgivable! What would Miss Chubb say?!) but it was great to see how they fundraise for the kids.

Last weekend on the Sunday, we had an ‘Everybody’s birthday’ party. The kids at HVC often don’t know when they were born or even their actual ages, so birthdays are often not celebrated. So instead Sue arranged a day for everyone to have a big party together. It coincided with a trip of 15 Australian schoolgirls who donated a huge amount of presents for the kids and played party games with them all. It was so strange to be on the grounds at the weekend but really nice to see the kids when we weren’t teaching! It really showed me how far we’ve come already, as they all ran to see us and clambered all over us in excitement. I feel like we’ve been accepted into their family, as cheesy as that sounds, and it makes me certain our year here will be a happy one. 🙂

One last thing before you all nod off from my ramblings. HVC now has a real proper xylophone! A bit of an anti-climax for many of you reading but for those who know me, this is just the best thing ever. The Australian girls were amazing in their donations of gifts to HVC:  hundreds of pounds, birthday presents and sacks of rice and mosquito nets for local villagers. But they also gave Sue an alto xylophone! She then asked me to play it in front of all of the kids and the staff and the schoolgirls on the spot. Luckily I didn’t embarrass myself too much! Anyway I can’t wait to start some music lessons with the kids who are interested. Pretty much my dream thing to happen here!!

Next time I write I can tell you all about our holiday which starts tomorrow. We’re off to Battambang for the weekend and I can’t wait! HVC is closed until next Wednesday as Pchum Benn (festival of the dead) means all the kids go and stay with relatives to celebrate. Some well-deserved time off for us and a chance to explore a bit of Cambodia!

Thanks so much to everyone who has even bothered to read this far and for reading all the essays. 🙂

Miss everyone a lot but living the dream!

Love to you all xxx

Over a month in Cambodia!

My Dad complained my last blog post was too long, but I’m afraid there is just too much to write about with not enough time or space, so that won’t be changing much (Dad I still expect a FULL read-through ;D) I wish I could update more often but most evenings I’m shattered or actually sleeping aha!

Since my last blog post on the 15th I’ve turned 19!! I don’t feel any different, but the day itself was definitely not the usual birthday at home… I got some cards from the kids at HVC and sung Happy Birthday to by more than a few of them which was so lovely! Trish made a card for me and so did Becky and Ben, which just made an awesome start to the day. Then after a day at HVC, we headed down to somewhere called ‘Swensons’ which is an American ice-cream shop that sells THE best ice cream sundaes imaginable. While shovelling huge spoonfuls of chocolate covered goodness into my mouth, I skilfully skyped my parents. There is never a time when eating cannot be combined with important family communication. After the ice cream, we went to this amazing place called the Rivergarden which I think I mentioned last time too. I had steak! An actual steak in Cambodia, so that pretty much made my birthday. The other volunteers bought me this huge present of food and snacks and lovely bath kind of stuff which I really love as it’s hard to get stuff cheap that’s western here (I know this makes me sound even more obese but I got DAIRY MILK!! Couldn’t have dreamed of a better present.) After feeling crazily full, I got home and then spent all of Trish’s phone credit calling home… oops! I did replace her top up for her though, I’m not that much of an evil person…

The rest of the week passed by as a busy blur, each bike ride home on a Friday evening seems to come so quickly! This particular Friday however, we went out in Siem Reap for the first time…DUN DUN DUNNN.

Okay so sorry guys but, forget freshers, Siem Reap is where it’s at! I know we are here to volunteer but work hard and play hard right?! We hadn’t really let ourselves have a night out since moving up to SR and to celebrate me being an old fogey at 19, we headed out with loads of other volunteers to the Angkor Famous bar. I won’t go into too much detail of the night out as I should focus on the volunteering we’re doing! BUT after dangerously cheap cocktails we did go to a bar called ‘Angkor What?!’ It’s a play on the Angkor Wat name of the huge temple Cambodia is famous for, which is right next to Siem Reap. It’s an awesome place and safe to say we were dancing on tables… we even ended up in a hilarious Khmer club called ‘Hip Hop’ by the end of the night. I can’t remember how many different people we met but we just made friends wherever we went, just pure fun and dancing like a crazy idiot (I feel sorry for those of you who have witnessed this sight before!)

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We don’t really get out much so it was a great release from a lot of the stress and change we’ve been through these past few weeks, plus we met some more amazing people!

Then on the Saturday Sarah came to visit! She’s another Project Trust volunteer working in Phnom Penh and it was great to catch up. After her 6 hour journey in, we showed her the streets of Siem Reap and she couldn’t believe how quiet and dead it was compared to Phnom Penh. Me and Trish were trying to think of a comparison to cities back in the UK. Phnom Penh to Siem Reap is like London to a much much quieter Oxford. Whereas Sarah falls asleep to the sound of crazy blaring traffic horns and constant noise, we fall asleep to the sounds of cockerels and weird insects (no joke, there is a frog here which sounds like a giant cow/donkey…) We had a pretty chilled night in with some movies and then a visit to the Rivergarden again on the Sunday (pretty much regulars now!) Hopefully we can meet up with the whole country group soon and go on holiday somewhere, as we both miss the first 2 weeks we had with everyone in Phnom Penh!

Apart from our ‘crazy’ Friday night, the week has been pretty peaceful. HVC is in a kind of limbo at the moment as we wait for the village children to start lessons. So far we have an estimated 200 extra kids coming onto the site, me and Trish are slightly terrified! The way things are done in Cambodia is really different to the western world, especially in education. A lot of the people who run schools here probably never went to proper schools themselves and have nowhere near the qualifications of teachers back home. This makes co-ordination with lessons we want to teach pretty damn hard and it’s a constant battle for information that’s accurate! However I know we’ll get there eventually- the path to success here is full of challenges and much windier than any in Western society.

Instead of teaching we’re trying to do odd jobs around the site, from litter picking, laundry, helping to cook, fixing chairs, cleaning rooms, and sorting stock to of course playing with the kids as much as possible! The older ones have already started secondary school and the younger ones will all go off next Monday, so we won’t really have as much time to spend with them after this week. Everything changes day by day so for all we know the village kids might be set back another week due to the khmer way of organising! Sue says we can learn a lot culturally from how laid back they are in almost all situations, but when co-ordinating 6 different classes of Khmer, English and Maths combined with 250+ children in total? Maybe the uptight Western way of being prepared will stop all of us going insane… haha! I’m pretty nervous to teach the village children as some know no English at all, whereas most of HVC’s kids can understand basic instructions such as ‘sit down’ etc. We might even have translators in our lessons, yet another thing to co-ordinate!

This is where the volunteering at HVC really stretches you and makes me in particular realise I actually do love to plan out the future in quite an orderly way… But at the same time we’re constantly having to think on our feet and our input is really valued so every suggestion they take on from what we’ve said makes you feel like you’re making a real difference.

Now I haven’t really mentioned much about the kids themselves, I can’t wait to upload all my photos of them so far! They are the best. Now I know I’m a little, and only a little, biased but they just make every day so worth it. They love to call the volunteers ‘chaa’ because they can’t say ‘teacher’ haha! Also all kids here seemed to be obsessed with Angry Birds. Now I’m not sure why I didn’t see this coming, but is it only me that thinks that is so random?! They have so much merch from it, from watches to t-shirts, to shoes. One of the volunteers actually has the Angry Birds game on their iphone, needless to say the kids went mental and she has been harassed for it ever since!

Ben 10 is also a huge hit out here. It’s funny because Ben and Becky, the lovely Australian couple, have been named ‘Ben 10’ (for Ben of course) and Becky has been named ‘Angry Bird’- somehow I don’t think the kids will ever forget them! The boys love to play football, but luckily I haven’t been made to join in yet, now that would be worth laughing at. The field is usually a sea of mud so they end up pretty much swimming across the pitch to score. We went to go and see a football tournament they were in on Sunday, while Sarah was in SR. It was such a scorchingly hot day but we all turned up to see their last match which they unluckily lost and were not happy about at all! However the best bit for us was probably seeing 15 of the boys in one tuk tuk!! We thought 6 of us was a squeeze in Phnom Penh…

I’ll try and remember more things about the kids to tell you, as it’s strange how well we know them after 3 and a half weeks! I can proudly say I know all their names and pretty much their ages (maybe not quite, but working on it!) I can’t wait to get teaching again, as I think we’re all missing interacting with them all because it’s the best way to make the most out of volunteering here.

So I’m sitting here on my bed and it’s 20 past 6pm Cambodian time, dark outside and of course I’m sweating in the heat (mmmm!) I was inspired to write this post in particular, as there is just so much we’ve seen here already…

  • The weird things people use motos (mopeds) for. So far I have seen: 4 live piglets on the back of one, a whole family, 2 babies, panes of glass, giant sacks of rice, huge metal frames for doors, a mirrored cabinet and about 20 ducks/geese. This is all very impressive cargo usually precariously balanced while the driver skilfully dodges potholes and wades through giant pools of mud. Often a little kid will just be balancing ontop of the stuff, like an accidental circus act, performing out of necessity.
  • The amount of buffalo. But more importantly the fact tiny children are herding about 10 of them at a time, usually with a piece of string. They have huge horns which look slightly terrifying and I’m pretty sure if a stampede happened, the kid with the string wouldn’t stand much of a chance! Saying that, the chance of a stampede is pretty unlikely as they seem really docile anyway… plus I’m comforting myself as I have to cycle past loads every day! Today we saw one taking a swim in a rice paddy flooded with water, which was actually pretty awesome. Last week we saw a tiny child, probably about 5, having the time of his life riding a HUGE one and laughing at the expressions on our faces.
  • The fact everyone says hello! This is lovely, on our bike rides loads of the locals shout it across the fields or as they cycle past. The kids love to get a reaction and when you answer back the grin across their faces is just brilliant. I’ve never felt so welcomed as a human being I swear! Everyone stares at us, even though they do see foreigners from time to time, it’s still pretty rare that they’re cycling Cambodian bikes through their part of the country.
  • The mud, the storms and the rain. Wet season definitely isn’t as popular which is a shame as everyone misses out on the amazing lightning storms! The other night, coming back from Siem Reap it wasn’t raining but in the distance we could see the clouds being lit up by flashes of lightning miles away. It was a pretty dramatic backdrop to coming home on a Sunday night! The mud I don’t love as much, we get caked in it pretty much every bike ride, especially when it rains WHILE we’re cycling… not so good. There is this one part of the dirt path by our house that is just cursed with the worst mud and of course where I’ve fallen off my bike (mentioned with much exaggeration in the last post.) The rain has met us with mixed feelings of hatred during the cycle rides and also we kind of love it when it’s hot and we get soaked in town- much to the amusements of the hundreds of tuk tuks standing with their umbrellas.

Every day comes with some kind of discovery and pretty much I just love Cambodia!

So happy to be here, even with missing home so much I can really distract myself with the work and it’s all totally worth it.

Love to everyone as always.

Xxx

p.s. I’m reading The Hobbit at the moment (due to lack of tv) and I’m so jealous of everyone who gets to see it in December!!!

A very overdue blog post…

It’s hard to know where to begin in retelling the past 2 weeks or so. This is why I’m going to try and update more often, then it’s not so much of a mammoth task…

Just woken up from a wonderful and very rare lie-in as it’s the weekend!! It’s the end of my second week working at Honour Village and so me and Trish are heading into Siem Reap town for a well-deserve weekend break. To say time passes at light speed here is an understatement. Two days after my birthday on Tuesday, it will have been a month since I arrived as a tourist simpleton, marvelling at tuk tuks and excitedly pointing out the first sighting of a real monk..

I feel pretty proud of how me and Trish have managed to adapt to our new lives here already. Home sickness is something we will both have to deal with time to time but overall we’ve coped with the situation pretty calmly and with a determination to be the best volunteers we can be!

Which of course brings me to the work at Honour Village we’ve been carrying out which has taken over our lives these past couple of weeks. It’s an intense 8:30-5pm day at the Children’s Village (the word ‘orphanage’ here apparently has bad connotations due to the frequency of corruption; I’ll go back to this point later!) I don’t think any amount of preparation could’ve helped me and Trish with how intense the days are and how tiring! However that is no way a complaint, each day is a rollercoaster of highs and lows but the high points make any amount of tiredness completely worth it.

I think the easiest way to give you an idea of what we’re doing at HVC (Honour Village Cambodia) is to go through our daily routine, which is pretty fixed. I promise I’ll try and make it as interesting as possible…

The mornings start with a groan as me and Trish realised it’s reached 7/7:30am and the phone’s irritating beeping signals the fact we both have to get up and disturb our deep sleep. One of us tries to drag the other out of bed after having a freezing cold shower. We don’t have hot water here, which is great when you’re sweaty and gross after a day’s work but in the morning when you’re all cosy in bed and then have to stand under ice-water, well that’s not so refreshing. As with all things, we’ve both got used to these freezing wake-up calls and I have a feeling I’d be a half-asleep zombie without them. Then as we both sit there in sleepy silence one of us tries to make breakfast. So far we’ve tried cheap cornflakes, yoghurts (bit expensive but tasty!), some mouldy bananas, frosties (however at 4 dollars a box we realised it was a bit too luxurious) and our latest venture of putting sweetened soy milk on yet more cheap cereal. I’ve forgotten to mention one experiemental breakfast which went pretty wrong (and yes it was me who found out of course!) Across from our house is a street which has lots of little food stalls that sell cheap packaged crap basically. Me and Trish decided to try the little sponge cakes they sell, and they were delicious!! We bought a couple of packets to eat for breakfast, as they were so cheap. Then I think it must’ve been Tuesday last week? I happily bit into a cake, with my blurry just woken up vision, little black dots were swimming before my eyes. ‘Of course it’s just me waking up’ I thought, then the horror of realisation dawned as I looked more closely at the cake I’d  just bitten into and it was in fact infested with small ants.

The term ‘freak-out’ doesn’t quite sum up my reaction. Anyone who knows me knows I hate insects, of most kinds (hence why we have the strongest bug spray imaginable and a tennis-racquet styled insect zapper- which literally fries anything…) So that made for a wonderful start to the day! Safe to say we won’t be risking the cakes again, which is a shame as they were tasty when bug-less.

After going on that massive pointless tangent about how pathetic I am with creepy-crawlies, I’ll get back to our days out here. At about 8:15 we rush out of the door to get to our transport for the day. A bicycle!!  To get to Honour Village me and Trish cycle 3km each way, every day (so approx. 30km a week!) When I heard ‘it’s a 10 minute cycle ride’ I was quite excited at maybe getting slightly less unfit while being out here. However the reality of it is quite a bit of a shock to my muscles… We’ve already had some hilarious incidents, especially as me and bikes often ends up with a tangle of metal and limbs in a nettle bush somewhere. As well as the countless motos and dusty trucks which overtake us on the journey and the fact there is no official ‘right side’ to drive on, me and Trish have had to deal with some interesting challenges on the dusty dirt-tracks of Cambodia.

The cows are the first thing and sometimes bulls which just lie in the middle of the roads. Herds (led by children who look no older than 8 by bits of string) just wander into the road, sometimes at a run. Then there’s the fact we are cycling in rainy season and a very unpredictable one at that. Once the rain starts and you realise you have no way of being waterproof it’s a steady endurance test against the pelting rain, hilarious for Trish when she spots my completely useless glasses covered in raindrops. The muddy roads become a bath of puddles and ditch ramps, which I’ve accidentally taken at speed. I’ve concluded that all of this is going to make me into some kind of bmx champion by the end of the year… Okay maybe not, but as we wash the caked mud off our legs when we reach our destination at either end I kind of wish I could be! All this said, we both love the bikes and the chance to be outside every day.  The scenery here is breath-taking. Whether we’re cycling home as the clouds are lit up by the setting, golden glow of the sun or we cycle past the flooded rice-fields in the early mornings, it’s hard not to stop and get out my camera at every opportunity. The rainy journeys are pretty rare as we luckily miss it most days, and no matter how out of breath we get, a quick look around makes everything seem a bit better. Cambodia is a remarkably flat country, which again makes cycling hardly a challenge and the views seem to go on forever, stretching until your eyes fail you.

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Bike and scenery! ^

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When we finally reach HVC after realising just how unfit we both are, it’s a quick feeding of the 5 cats before me and Trish head off to teach whichever lessons we’re in charge of that day. Teaching is so hard! Genuinely feel bad for all my teachers if I was ever too chatty or irritated them (and as nerdy as you know I am, it did happen on occasion!) The fact it’s hard doesn’t make me want to give up on it but drives my determination to learn as much as possible at how to make my lessons really good, something I hope to achieve by the time I leave next year. So far I’ve taught a lesson to three of the four different classes at HVC. I started off with teaching a couple of class 4’s handwriting lessons, which consists of all the older boys and more advanced students. I hope to teach them full time eventually as that has been my favourite teaching experience so far. I then covered for a teacher who takes class 1. Now THAT class I’m not sure I could handle full time!! Ranging from aged 5 onwards, they are the cutest but most naughty students. In playing times, they are my best friends but as soon as I teach them all hell breaks loose… Luckily the teacher came back and saved me. I’m currently helping Becky with her class 3 classes. I’ve started feeling more comfortable with this class, although discipline is a huge issue, with a set of quite cheeky kids. Surprisingly I’ve been as strict as I can, which is my least favourite element of it. It’s hard to tell off a kid who has the cutest face and has a pretty tough background, but as Sue our host points out, it’s the only way to make sure they know the difference between right and wrong.

Each class starts with an hour of maths, then an hour of handwriting. Then we all go to ‘meditation’ at 11am every day which is so fun. All the kids and volunteers sit together with Sue and we sit in complete silence for about 5 minutes, a well-deserved rest from the chaos of lessons. Then the kids are all insanely cute and sing songs together. My favourite is a Khmer one which I have no chance of learning the words to, but it’s amazing when every child from little 5-year old Riem to 16-year old Thai sing together. Sue is absolutely incredible with them, she holds this almost head-teacher like power over them, which of course comes from the fact she’s been there since day one! After meditation and usually some khmer notices which involve several children being told off… we head off for lunch. At 11:30!! Yet we’re all starving, and every day we have rice plus something else. It’s actually really nice and we’ve both gotten used to the hugely increased role of rice as our main food of the week. Yesterday we had some crazy marinated fish thing which looked horrible but tasted amazing, sometimes we have an unknown salty meat on tomatoes or a soup of… stuff? Haha it sounds unappetising but most of it tastes perfectly fine! We’re really lucky we can stay for lunch and dinner at no cost, it saves a huge amount of money and we get more time with the kids.

The volunteers all sit together at lunch times, which bring me onto the wonderful people we’ve met so far with this work! Ben and Becky I think I mentioned in the last blog post are the first people we met when we arrived and they are the most experienced HVC volunteers, hailing from Sydney and Brisbon Australia. They’ve been a huge support and help at getting us settled and both of them have been happy to let me teach some of their lessons or help with ideas and planning, (and of course where the best places in Siem Reap are!) they seem to have seen and done all the best things in this part of the world so will definitely be getting some tips for travelling.

Then there’s the lovely Anita!! She’s from Christchurch New Zealand and had been there about 2/3 weeks before we arrived. It’s great as she’s our age and here for another 8 weeks yay! Hearing her stories of the earthquake there were amazingly interesting, never thought I’d meet so many people from different parts of the world! We’re meeting up with her this weekend and she’s already given us the 1st season of misfits on a memory stick, which we watched most of last night. Then there’s Sue (another one!) from Australia as well but this time from Adelaide. Me and Trish basically see her as our second mum (hope she doesn’t mind us saying this!) but again she has so many interesting stories and experiences to share with us all. Dionne is another volunteer, from Bournemouth in good ol’ England but had been travelling all around S.E. Asia for the last 3,4 months. We’re sad she’s only here 3 weeks as we have both loved getting to know her! Again some amazing anecdotes about her travels have made this whole experience more fun. We then had a couple from Canada on their honeymoon (so unexpected!!) who spent a week at HVC. Ryan and Kate were lovely and though their visit was brief it was great to meet them too.

So yeah! That pretty much summarizes how many different people we’re meeting here! It’s so great so many people want to volunteer, as teaching 48 kids or so is a tough challenge for only a small group of people. We all went for Tapas on Wednesday, an awesome 1 dollar night at a local restaurant in Siem Reap. It’s the best night I’ve had here so far, all the volunteers were so much fun to be with! To say I’ll be sad when the group eventually disbands doesn’t cover it. L

Back to our daily routine, with another huge tangent over! After lunch we have a 2 hour break to discuss lesson planning and Sue often does some training with us. Then we have a chance to play with the kids before English conversation lessons start at 2pm and go on for an hour. It’s definitely the hardest one to teach as the point is to get them talking, pretty hard when they are still a long way from fluent. We’re all trying to improve them day by day with some games and a way to keep their attention for the whole hour. Then at 3pm most of the volunteers head home. But not me and Trish! Because we stay for dinner we get almost 2 hours to just play with the children. Sometimes if its sunny we play games out on the grass, or draw inside or we’ve now started reading to and with the kids. This is our favourite bit of the day as lessons are over and although we’re both pretty shattered, the kids are so much fun.

This is when my comment about having rollercoaster days comes into play. If you’ve had a pretty rubbish lesson then one of the kids might give you a drawing to keep, or a massive hug, or just be so much fun in general! It always lifts any mood you could be in after a really draining day, which could’ve started with a traumatic bike ride in… Haha! That’s the best part about volunteering here, no day is the same and it’s all constantly changing, volunteers come and go, lessons change, days turn into weeks and soon I’m sure they’ll turn into months without the blink of an eye.

The most recent news at HVC is that we’ve tested all the children in a standardised English (written and spoken) and Maths assessment. I helped Sue to create a draft of the English and Maths written papers as I’m pretty good at word formatting. All the volunteers had to help yesterday, either as assessors on their spoken English or in helping the kids get to the rooms they needed to be in. We then marked all the papers and now Sue and her team have to decide their ability levels. It was a tiring day but probably one of my most favourite yet as we didn’t have to teach all day haha! The afternoon was free for everyone and we spent hours sitting with the kids, taking photos and watching them ship in furniture for the new classrooms.

I should explain one last thing before I let you all stop reading this essay! The village children all start coming to Honour Village to learn English and Khmer on the October 1st and that is also when HVC kids start school again. So can you believe we’re doing all this teaching and it’s actually the summer holidays for them?! There have been over 200 village kids who have shown interest in coming to HVC but we can’t take them all in (lack of space and volunteers!) so we’re testing all 200 or so on Monday. It’s going to be a bit of a crazy day… The local village doesn’t actually have a school which is why there is such high demand to learn with us. Me and Trish both spent a day last week on the back of a moto with one of the Khmer teachers, spreading the word about HVC, but the story of that day will have to wait until next time as my fingers are tired!

I will try and be a bit better at keeping you updated so it doesn’t all come in one huge post like today. Hope you’ve enjoyed reading and it hasn’t been too much of a contrast to my Phnom Penh entries!

Love to everyone,

xxx

p.s.added note from later in the day: a bit of our bathroom ceiling fell down in a storm last night and today in Siem Reap we were joined by a rat as we ate our lunch. Hilariously terrifying.