This is a personal site. The views expressed are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of VSO.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

The way home?

It took me so long to feel a part of it here, that now going home is just a week away I’m really starting to feel, well, sad.

It’s so strange, wanting to go home and not wanting to leave at the same time. Every time I see a cow in the middle of the road, of a child clinging on to the back of a motorbike, I can’t help but think about the everyday images that I’m going to miss. Going outside and looking at the palm trees, riding on the motorbike and going for dinner with friends. The ex-pat community is so small here, and everyone is so accepting – there’s no pretense, and we’re in it together.

At work, I’ve found some projects I really love, they stretch my job description a bit, but as I tramp about in half a foot of mud up in Tmar Puok, I suddenly realise what my expectation and image of working in Cambodia was. Part of me really can’t help but feel bad that I’m leaving, there is still stuff to do and everyone that has become a part of my Cambodia will carry on without me. They will moan about about 3.30am wake-up calls, cockerels and cows without me. Is this the point at which someone throws in their Western life and stays? Or do you say ‘thank you very much, have a nice life’and waltz off home?

I don’t know. I very much want to go home. I picture living a life with my boyfriend, being cosy, going camping, wearing nice clothes and (heaven forbid) showing a shoulder without feeling weird about it. I want to see my family, torture my little brother, go out with my friends and tell everyone about it. I want to take my first piping hot bath in 365 days. I would like to get a good job, go to ASDA and go to the cinema (also for the first time in 365 days). I want to be able to understand the world around me, not worry about mice, mosquitoes or malaria. I would like, very much, to feel clean.

But I am really going to miss Cambodia and a very real part of me would like to stay. Perhaps that means it’s the perfect time to leave, but it kind of feels like I’m about to miss the end of the story.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

Top 10

Things are drawing to a close, and although it hasn’t quite sunken in yet, in less than one month I’ll be sleeping in the spare room at my parent’s house. As time runs out, and I’ve finished watching all the DVDs I own (I should get a medal: 6 series of House, 5 series of Spooks, 3 series of Gossip Girl and 1 series of Glee, is no mean feat) time is a tickin’ and I can’t help I think about what I’m going home to, and exactly what I’m leaving behind.

So in light of this, let me introduce Jen’s top 10:-

… things I will miss about Cambodia …
1) Waking up to a blue-sky, knowing it will be as sunny today as it was yesterday.
2) Driving my moto round the countryside, looking at the green of the paddy fields and skillfully dodging the cows.
3) Art class and my friend Remy.
4) Having my daily iced coffee with condensed milk and Ovaltine.
5) Being told I’m beautiful by almost everyone I meet (Khmer’s love a bit of white skin and a big nose).
6) The instant diet potential of life in Cambodia.
7) Floating home after a successful day at work (such rarities should not be taken lightly).
8) Life, and the network of fellow volunteers – I’ll miss you all!
9) Living in a world where anything is possible. Especially if you have a moto and enough string.
10) A good meal at Cow-On-The-Mountain and Red and Yellow Chairs place.

… things I WILL NOT miss about Cambodia …

1) Cockerels.
2) Mice, especially the rotten ones under floorboards.
3) Returning home from a hard day at work only to find that your ‘Bum Gun’ has exploded and the lower floor of your house is half a foot deep in water.
4) Washing my clothes in a bucket.
5) People that cannot drive and look at you with a blank face after they have almost killed you.
6) “Laydeee wanna tuk tuk? / Pineapple? / Moto?”.
7) Ants on my washing line, and correspondingly, in my pants.
8) Loud speakers, Khmer music and 4am.
9) Living in a world that is not designed for people over 5ft, and the back-ache that comes with it.
10) Actually, I can’t think of anymore.

... and then there were three.

With just four weeks left to go, my family has finally decided to brave the boarders for a flying visit to the land of Cambodia. Well, two of them did, anyway (Dad and brother).

Flexing my tour guide muscles and practicing my very best Khmer, we began our trip in Siem Reap. Taking in the temples, swimming pools and markets, I tried hard to convince my family that I am indeed ‘roughing it’ in Cambodia – nevermind that I am on first-name terms with the staff of my favourite hotel. It was great to show them everything that Siem Reap has to offer, but I did find myself secretly disappointed that they a) seemed to want to sample the local cuisine, when I am now very much craving steak, and b) as men, didn’t find the shopping in the Night Market nearly as exciting as I do.

From Siem Reap I bowed to requests for a slice of ‘the real Cambodia’, so we headed off to Sisophon for a surprisingly enjoyable three days of da-laying (aimless wandering). Without much effort at all, I got my dad to ride on the back of my moto, and with my brother following on my push-bike we were an unstoppable force. Well, that is until people decided that ‘the real Cambodia’ is in fact far too hot and sweaty, and that the locals seem to like to use chop-sticks and eat chickens eggs with fetuses in them. So we finished the holiday with some four star, $30 a night accommodation in Battambang.

Fortunately, my dad is much easier to convince to do stupid things than my mum is, so whilst in Battambang we rode the precarious – if not ingenious – Bamboo train and then took a tuk-tuk out to the Battambang Circus in the middle of a monsoon. An adventure that was well worth it, where else can you see some 15 year old boy do a handstand on top of 10 creatively stacked wooden chairs?

And now they’ve gone, and I have three weeks left. I’m glad I got to the opportunity to show-off my Cambodia, and give them an insight into what I’ll be talking about when I get home. But for now, it’s a weird feeling. A little empty, perhaps.

Monday, 26 July 2010

The key to success?

It's exam time in Sisophon, Cambodia and what greater way to show off weeks of hard study, revision and learning? Pass your Grade 12 exams and become one of the intellectual elite. The world is indeed your oyster... well, sort of.

What's that I hear you cry?! You haven't done enough revision? Not to worry, outside the exam centres today there are hundreds of buzzing entrepreneurs just waiting to sell you the answers to your exam paper for the bargain price of $2.5. Competition is fierce and preparation this year can't be faulted, with people leaking the exam papers with weeks to spare!

Short of cash? Then why not text your uncle, brother or cousin or aunt, and they will hand deliver your answers personally!

Whatever your move, I hope you've planned it in advance, because this year the restrictions are tough and it's harder than ever to pass Grade 12. The police are in place, the centres are fenced... how do they expect anyone to graduate at this rate?

Sunday, 18 July 2010


Over the last 11 months, I think I have felt every emotion known to man - at ten times its normal magnitude. There was a time when I really didn’t think I could do it. And, if I’m honest, that it wasn’t worth what I had given up. Now, with just six weeks left, I am sitting in my living room, having just gotten home from an impromptu party at the school where I’ve been attending a local art class. I think I have just had one of the nicest afternoons of my life.

Leaving the party, and saying goodbye to some of my friends there, has really made me think about my life here and how its changed. The children I’ve gotten to know are just wonderful, and their openness and warmth will stay with me long after I’ve gone home. Its difficult to explain, to them they are just being themselves – they were curious about the foreigner, a little shy, but took the time to talk to me and practice their English. They made me feel welcome, and they wanted to be a part of my life here. I can’t tell you the impact this has had on me. Going to this art class has given me something to do here that I really truly, love. Something that isn’t work and was just for me. Going, and having people there that want to tell me that they moved house yesterday, and want to ask me one question please – why is it that foreigners don’t want to always eat rice? Why did I want to travel to Cambodia? It’s made me feel a part of something, a part of the town, a part of someone else’s life. I wish I could tell them just how important they have become to me and how much I will miss it when I am gone.

I used to think that I came to Cambodia for a variety of reasons. I always wanted to travel, and I wanted to help. Good reasons, I think. Now –selfishly- I think the biggest reason I came here is because I wanted to live in another country. I wanted to see if I could do it. The work is of course important, and I am happy now that it is going well and I have made something of the job I came to do. But right now, after today, if you asked me what my biggest accomplishment in Cambodia is? It’s that I like it. I feel now that I don’t just live and work in Cambodia, but that I have a life in Cambodia. It’s taken me a long time to really feel this way, longer perhaps than it should have done. But now I know that I have friends, not just foreigners, but Khmer friends too. I feel a part of Sisophon and a part of Cambodia. I am looking forward to going home, but I can honestly say that I will be sorry to leave. And for me, that’s the greatest achievement of all: I’ve done it.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Match of the Day...

Here's the video Oly made of our 1GOAL football match. Worth watching, I think!

Fever Pitch

Considering that up until two weeks ago I wasn’t even aware that there’s a World Cup this year, I’ve suddenly found myself in the midst of all the football fever – and seem to be organizing a football match.

It all started when fellow volunteer Oly Shipp stopped over at Jen’s Hotel on his way to some medical meeting. Over a cup of tea and a biscuit (I take payment in foodstuffs) he casually drew my attention to an e-mail we’d gotten about a month ago that asked volunteers to organise a football match as part of the 1GOAL campaign. I remember getting that e-mail, seeing the word ‘football’ and pressing DELETE.

Well. Oly is a male volunteer, and these are few and far between out here in Cambodia. So I must admit my heart-strings were tugged when he started exclaiming just how much it would mean to him to be able to play in a football match. Wouldn’t I help organise it?

Always keen to have something to do, yes, I said – I would. What does he need? Not too much,
I was assured. It’s just a football match, how hard could it be to organise? Well, indeed. So I committed to organising a match at one week’s notice. Oh, and then Oly tells me he’s going to be away until Wednesday. The match was to be on the following Saturday. Do I mind?

Actually, organizing the match was surprisingly easy. Nevermind that we showed up to the training match without a football. Even the best made plans have glitches.

1GOAL is an event piggy backing off World Cup fame, aimed at raising awareness for education. There are 72 million children worldwide that are still being denied the opportunity to attend school, and by signing the petition at a local 1GOAL event, world leaders can see just how much people across the globe support the concept of Education For All. We got 340 signatures to add to this petition - the majority from children.

The grand plan: A football match between VSO volunteers and Ministry of Education Staff. Both teams must have at least two female players. VSO will provide t-shirts, the Ministry a referee and Linesmen and we got the local arts school to provide some of their drummers for added effect.

I have to say, considering we threw it together in a week – the morning went really well! There were loads of spectators, a good team spirit, music, banners, cheering… Never mind that the ‘Education For All' banners actually turned out to be second hand from an old drugs campaign, the message was there (VSO also provided a couple of banners) and everyone was in high spirits. We turned up the evening before to find kids doing some litter collection and the Ministry painting new white lines on the community football pitch. We bought some new sand for the goals and have left a new set of goal posts as a donation to the community.

It was great. And the best part was that everyone was involved: Education volunteers, health volunteers, translators, community members, ministry education staff, the local arts school and an ever growing selection of random children. A brilliant Saturday morning. We even ended up on the local news!

Now, I have no idea how England are doing in the World Cup this year. But our score? VSO [6] : Ministry of Education [4]. A new England squad in the making?

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

A series of goodbyes...

Time’s they are a - changin’ , and after a sudden influx of new volunteers the crossover is coming to an end. Now it’s time for some of the old hands to say goodbye, if they haven’t already left.

It’s quite sad. I’m excited to have new faces around, but I will really miss the people I’ve gotten to know over the last nine months. We’ve shared a lot and suddenly Sisophon doesn’t quite seem the same without them.

So, to the following people I hope they had a safe journey home:

Jan: VSO veteran after four years of service knew everything there is to know about life in Svay and made a particularly good Friday evening gin and tonic. All we needed to provide was a tube of Pringles and let the sunset do the rest.

Sophie: A new arrival, for a mixture of reasons has decided that Cambodia is not for her. A shame, she was becoming a great part of the team and is missed at our daily coffee.

Anne: My sanity in Sisophon and a great friend. Hopefully I’ll make it over to Australia to visit one day!!

It’s weird the friendship situation out here, the turnover is so high that people come and go within a matter of months. If you stay, you get used to it, deal with it and welcome in the new arrivals. Yet, you’re thrust into such an intense situation that you get to know each other really well really quickly and then suddenly it’s “See you, have a nice life in your country half way across the world from me!”. Without wanting to sound weird, I wonder sometimes how much of these friendships are really true and how much of it is circumstantial – will we really keep in touch? Well, to all of the above – I certainly hope so.

It felt very strange coming home on the bus on Sunday knowing that the people that welcomed me in have now gone. Now I’m the one that’s meant to know where stuff is.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Larks in Laos

Another admittedly great thing about Cambodia are the number of national holidays. Khmers don’t get annual leave so there are lots (40, I think) of days off, and hey – if ones on a Thursday, then why not take Friday off as well?

As frustrating as it can sometimes get (it actually is, when you need to get things done) they provide ample opportunity to go off and explore a bit of the country… And yes, I did come here to work. But I’m not going to look a gift horse in the mouth.

Anyway, come May, it was time to celebrate Khmer New Year. Or rather, as I know how much Khmers like loud speakers and 4am, it was time to high-tail it out of the country for a much needed change of scene. Teaming up with my fellow YFDs we decided to head for the 4000 islands in Southern Laos, via Rattinakiri to visit Kirsty’s. It took two days to get there, and crossing the ‘boarder’ (passing through two wooden shacks on a dirt road in the middle of nowhere) was an interesting experience…

Laos immigration: Good morning.
Me: Good morning.
Laos immigration: Two dollars.
Me: Why?
Laos immigration side: For Sunday tax.
Me: It’s Saturday.
Laos immigration side: Need two dollars.
Me: No.
Laos immigration: Two dollars or no Laos.
Me: What is the money for?
Laos immigration: Ink for stamp in passport. I not stamp without money.
Me: I need receipt.
Laos immigration: I not have. Two dollars.
Me: I have VSO receipt, you can sign this.
Laos immigration: Not a Laos receipt, can’t sign.
Me: VSO work in Laos, it’s okay.
Laos immigration: You can have passport back, but it has no stamp. You need stamp. I need money for ink.

It went on like this for another minute or so before I decided to put my principles aside, pay the two damn dollars and enter Laos. I did however take great pleasure in handing over a $50 note and demanding change. As did the other six people in the line behind me.

Laos was beautiful. The 4000 islands are located on a stretch of the Mekong river that, in dry season is home to – you’ve guessed it – 4000 islands. Although, it is a fairly loose definition of the term ‘island’. Still, for just $4 a night, there was beautiful scenery, and all I had to do was fall out of my bungalow, land in a tube and float around on the river for the best part of the day. If anyone was feeling energetic then we’d perhaps go for food, or hire a push bike. But mostly we chilled, and I have to say – I think it’s the first time I really truly relaxed and managed to put work out of my head.

1) Child swimming, and yes he is using the bottles as floats.
2) Bungalows - a bargain at $4 a night.
3) View from the bungalows, good water for swimming!
4) A random Laos women.

Behind on blogging: catch up one

Apparently, I’m not allowed to get away with a token blog entry on ants. I confess, I’ve been so busy lately with work (more later) and keeping up with a heavy schedule of DVD watching commitments that I’ve barely had time to write. So much has happened since I last went into any detail, that I’m not too sure where to start.

So… life:

Life in Sisophon is going really well at the moment, there may not be many touristy things to do, but I’m really enjoying just living here. I don’t know why, I never really felt unsettled before, but now it really does feel like home and there are things and people I will truly miss when I go back to England.

A big part of this improvement comes from my making more of an effort with the town around me. I’ve joined a local art club which I absolutely love and go two evenings a week. I recently painted a watercolour Apsara dancer, who was naked and had beautiful breasts (“mool sa’at”). This was the source of much amusement for at least two lessons, and I had a crowd of 15 year old boys round me the whole time I was painting. We decided she was too beautiful and expensive for any of them. This class is fast becoming my favourite part of the week and has really made me realize how important it is to have something that yours, and something that’s fun. For those two hours I don’t worry about work, my boyfriend or the army of ants that have taken up residence in my towel. It’s about me, a paintbrush and whether I’ve got the right colour for the orchid petal.

I’ve also started language lessons again with a new teacher, my friend Saory. Saory works at the District Office of Education, and teaches me twice a week. She’s great, has a sense of humor and is slowly getting to grips with the fact that in order to teach me successfully, she needs to imagine I am five years old. The first lesson, she was a little over optimistic with my language capabilities… now we work at a more appropriate level: I… like… rice… = K’hnom… cholchet… bye…

Over the past nine months I’ve also made some really great ‘barang’ (foreign) friends, and have a social life! I love the internationality of everything, there’s Australian, American and English. Sometimes there’s a little confusion over the English language (did you know the phrase ‘Can’t be arsed’ isn’t used in America?) but we manage to work round it.
Finally, my VSO team (me and Mary) get on fabulously. Together we’ve built up a bit of a routine, coffee at ‘Coffee Man’ in the market everyday at 11am. I never thought someone who’s a whole 40 year old older than me would become such a good friend, but there you go.

1) Me, Mary and Jan having a team coffee.
2) Me and Anne.
3) Lisa cooking at my house.
4) Some Banteay Meanchey 'Barangs' at Jan's leaving party (Kelsey, me, Anne, Jan, Deidre, Dan).
5) Kelsey cooking at my house.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Ants in my pants

Today I got up to get dressed and put on some of my brand new 100% cotton pants courtesy of my wonderful mother. It wasn't a pleasant experience.

As it turns out, I have ants marching up and down my washing line. Ants on my washing line = ants of my clothes. Oh, and these ants bite (do all ants bite?).

Sadly (or maybe humorously - ask me when the swellings gone down) my underwear was COVERED in the little B******DS. I wont get too graphic, but it wasn't fun and I have never removed an item of clothing so fast in my life.

So now all my clothes have been taken to my laundry lady to be cleaned and dried and I have a very itchy rear end.

Friday, 23 April 2010

A mouse in the house

Over this last week I have learnt a very important lesson.

At roughly 3am every day for the last month I have been woken up by the suspicious sound of scuttling. The other day, I turned my light on and got a sneaky peak of a mouse's rear end as it disappeared behind my wardrobe. Not wanting mice babies to materialise over the week I was to be away, I decided to be proactive about the situation, bought poison pellets and cunningly dropped them through a few holes in my floorboards.

Today, after two days of wondering why it smelt like gone off chicken in my room, and three days of hoping what I realised to be dead mouse smell would go away - with the help of Samuth we lifted a couple of floorboards and removed the offending item from my room. All other mice look to have made it outside before their end came. Sorry, I know it's not very Buddhist of me.

Anyway the lesson I have learnt and wish to share with others:

It isn't a good idea to put poison pellets down where the mice wont be able to get out. Use sticky traps instead.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

You know you've been in Cambodia too long when...

Inspired by my friends Oly and Kelsey, I've decided to create my own list of Cambodian conversions too!


You know you've been in Cambodia too long when:
  • You are no longer concerned by the presence of a mouse in your bedroom at 3am. As long as there's a mosquito net between you and it, you're fine.
  • The highlight of your evening is that 'Mamma Mia' is showing on HBO. Again.
  • Doing the laundry involves chucking all your stuff in a bucket, adding water, wash powder and stamping on it for a few minutes.
  • You hang around in the ATM, purely because it has air-con.
  • You start to appreciate ants for the job they do.
  • It's perfectly okay to drive on the wrong side of the road. In fact, sometimes its safer.
  • Spending 5 minutes deciding exactly which seat you want on the bus is an acceptable thing to do. Afterall, seats 6 and 7 are over the wheel and for some reason 16 and 17 don't have as much leg space as the others. And don't forget - it's best not to be too far back or you'll be last in the toilet queue at the service stop.
  • You've forgotten how to use a knife.
  • Happiness is a cup of iced ovaltine coffee in a market, under a fan a little too near the hanging cows heads.
  • You have to hold all your clothes up with a belt.
  • You start to speak to your fellow foreigners in broken English: "We go your house what time?"...
  • Seeing another white person is the most interesting part of your day.
  • Striking a match and setting light to your rubbish is as a good a waste disposal system as any other.
  • Your three main topics of conversation include: work, food and what DVD series your watching at the moment.
  • It's perfectly normal to discuss your bodily functions with complete strangers.
  • 9pm is a late night.
  • You no longer accidentally wee down your leg when using a squat toilet. You've got that technique mastered.
  • $2 for an item of clothing is an absolute rip off.
  • A trip to the supermarket is akin to seeing Angkor Wat or some other wonder of the world.
  • You dust your balcony.
  • All of a sudden your bright pink pair of joke purchase shorts are the most favourite thing you own. And did you just buy a fake diamante hair clip?
  • You will argue about $1 for at least ten minutes. It's important to have principles.
  • Your daily perfume is deet with a hint of bodily odor.
  • Sitting in a hammock is too much effort.
  • You prefer practical durable cotton underwear over anything else.
  • It's ok to eat rice for breakfast. And lunch. And dinner.
  • The concept of 'sharing skills' means that you request 'The Macarena' at every opportunity, just so you can teach people the dance moves.
  • A five hour journey is a 'short hop'.
  • You're appalled at the sight of someone wearing a skirt or shorts that do not cover the knee. When did it become okay to start showing so much skin?
  • A car is not considered full unless there are at least 10 people in it.
  • You can't sleep at night because it's too quiet, where did all the weddings go?
  • You know the words to: "You know you want me" and actually get excited when it comes on over a speaker.
  • A day below 30 degrees is considered cold.
  • You get excited about rain.

To see Oly and Kelsey's lists, feel free to check out their blogs:

Sunday, 4 April 2010

The Jolly Boy's Outing

As part of my attempt to encourage people to separate the role of community from the word ‘money’, I decided to run a study tour with my focus cluster to see the work of another VSO volunteer in Battambang. It was fool proof. I’d been with the two deputy directors from the District Office of Education in Mongkal Borei the week before, we’d checked out what we were going to see, more importantly – they liked what we were going to see, and I’d linked with another more experienced volunteer who helped me to plan the days activities. All I had to do was hire a mini-bus and make sure we left on time…

Nothing is ever foolproof.

In the days leading up to the event everything was going to plan. As requested by the Director of the District Office in Battambang, I was hauling everyone up extra early so that we would be in ‘the bong’ at 7.30am (it takes an hour to get there). I lied to everyone about the kick off, and as anticipated everyone was late, so we left on time.

The mini-bus was sparkling new, I’d even bought us breakfast the night before and everyone was in high spirits. Unfortunately, as we neared our destination I began to get a little concerned about the colour of the sky. As you've probably guessed, the sky in Cambodia is normally blue. Unless it’s the monsoon season – which right now it isn’t.

On this day, however, the sky was a worrying shade of grey and as we pulled up to the office for our first meeting the heavens opened and it started to rain, or to be more specific, it started to monsoon it down. I had a sneaky feeling that this rain would make the outdoor-based community open morning we were heading to see, a little difficult. Then my phone rang. The director had decided, at five minutes notice, to cancel our morning meeting. So, trying not to feel too guilty about the fact I’d just dragged 14 people out of bed early for nothing we headed to the first school to see (or not see) the open morning.

It continued to rain and as predicted, no-one came. So we got to sit around for an hour and a half. I can honestly say that this is the first time in Cambodia I have ever been cold. And to put a cherry on it, Roy, the volunteer helping me organize the trip, told me he thought the road to the second school would be too dangerous and slippy for us to drive on.

Now, I know it was no-one’s fault, but I have never wanted to scream so much in my life! It hasn’t rained in Cambodia for three months. Why it decided to rain on this particular parade, I don’t know.

Fortunately, and bless the Khmers who will smile anything,
everyone was still in fairly high-spirits (I think just being out of the office was enough), so with the promise of some good food and maybe a little sight-seeing before we gave up and went home everyone was more than happy.

But then someone of greater good took pity on me. The rained stopped and some people turned up. Slowly, slowly we began to salvage the day. The community morning had sadly been thrown by the rain, but we still got some sweet performances from the Student Council, it's just a shame that the flow and excitement of the morning had been lost and the monotony of Khmer speeches took over. I tried desperately not to despair as the school director discussed the history of the school and started telling all my keen eared visitors that he’d won some money gambling (which is illegal for Khmers) and this is how he’d started the development process in his school – sorry VSO, he was meant to be talking about the role of the community and his new Student Council!

Still, considering what was and what could have been, we managed to get a little something from the morning. So, fuelled up with a hearty lunch accompanied by just the one beer, we decided to brave the road to the second school. Luckily we didn’t slide off the road and into the river – and we actually managed to have a very lovely afternoon meeting that almost made my 5am start worthwhile. To be honest, I was surprised and impressed by everyone. Maybe things being rubbish is just so normal they really weren’t bothered by the way the morning turned out. We left the school in a jolly mood and I was even hoping we’d have the time to take in a temple before we went home, but sadly we didn’t. Still, we managed to pick up someone’s son who wanted a lift up to Svei and everyone had a good nap on the journey back.

And in conclusion? Well, it may not have been the day I was imagining, but I’m beginning to learn that nothing every will be – and that that’s okay, I’m in Cambodia not England. The important things is we saved it and managed to get something from it after all. No, it wasn’t the greatest revelation ever, but it was a start – and the nicest part of the day? Not the schools, not the open day, not the meeting… but the fact that everyone went home smiling, and I think what we achieved most that day – a little bit of unexpected team building. And that’s sustainable.

Monday, 15 March 2010

A new arrival

Please meet the newest member of the VSO team. At just eight days old, Suon Alexander is my translator's first baby! Both mum and kiddo are healthy and doing well, and the proudest dad in the world is taking great care of them both. Don't tell Matt, but I got a little maternal this afternoon...

Thursday, 11 March 2010

A slightly phiolosophical musing...

I’ve recently been asked to be a case study for the TES. As part of this, I was asked to summarise what I’m getting from my VSO placement in a nice, quotable few sentences.

After much thinking and joking around with phrases like ‘if it doesn’t kill you, it only makes you stronger’, I decided that it simply isn’t possible to paraphrase VSO without sounding naff. But answering this question really did get me thinking. What am I getting out of my time out here? I know the stock response would involve polishing my halo and saying things about fulfillment and rewarding etc. etc. But really it’s something more than that, and something completely different.

A friend of my parents once said that I’d come back from VSO a completely different person. I might be a little skinnier and a tad browner, but sadly the tan will fade and I’m sure that with the help of a few cheesecakes and one of dad’s roasts, I’ll fatten up a bit too. So what’s changed? I think that in all honesty, what I’m getting most from VSO, is to know myself. Well. Take yourself out of context, stick yourself in the middle of South East Asia and you come face to face with, well, you. Like it or lump it, for a good portion of the time you have yourself for company, and you really have to learn to get along with that person. You can only lie to yourself for so long and after a while you have to accept things about yourself, good and bad. Being able to say ‘yes I want this’ , ‘no I don’t want this’ or ‘I need this’, is important and not always easy. For a while I wondered if I had the strength to do this, and though it was a struggle, I’ve found that strength – and part of it is accepting what does and does not make you tick. I need some regular Jen time, can only pretend to be excited about talking about rice for so long and like to feel useful. I like to know what I’m doing, have a plan and feel in control – but I think the Lovely Matthew could have told you that one long ago. I’m also really coming to appreciate the things I have in England that I don’t have here, and I’m not just talking about cheese, gravy and pizza. Here I have most of the material possessions I want and need. But (and now it’s going to sound naff) having a mum that knows I’d appreciate a Shaun the Sheep shower exfoliater, a boyfriend that takes the piss out of my moods and gives me some perspective, and friends to go dancing with the minute I get back… those are what you don’t get over here, and it may seem a stupid thing to have realized it, but there you go. And I think that an acceptance of these things, and of myself and how I work
, well that’s the biggest part of being here – because now I can just get on with it and enjoy it.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Supporting the underdog

Now that I'm almost officially back on form, I've followed through on my commitments to the VSO volunteer magazine (Neak Smak Jet - the phonetic for 'volunteer') and written an article on Sisophon, the poor underdog of a placement location. And you know what - I didn't even have to lie! Well, not much.

Supporting the underdog: Why Sisophon is great.

Having just been offered a year long placement in Cambodia, I run to the travel section of Waterstones bookshop and flip open the first Rough Guide that I can find. Sisophon, Banteay Meanchey: ‘the scruffiest, dustiest town in Cambodia’. Hmmm.

If you’ve not already packed up and declined your offer – turn the page and keep reading. ‘A diamond in the rough’, it seems that there is more to Svei Sisophon than first meets the eye. It may not be handsome, it may not be pretty, but there is something about this dusty little town that charms those of use fortunate enough to live in it.

But what is it? When I put this question to my friend and fellow resident, Anne, she looked fondly into the distance and started saying something about the smiles on peoples faces and the cries of hello as you walk down the street… I’m afraid I burst out laughing at this point, but it did get me thinking. A few weeks later I put the same question to Mary, whose been here four months now, and she too said something about the attitude of the people, and being welcomed with a cup of tea and a cake. Maybe they’re onto something after all?

For those of you that haven’t yet added Sisophon to your tour of Cambodia, you’ll find it on the cross roads of three major destinations: Battambang, Poipet and Siem Reap. Far bigger than I expected, Sisophon is a bustling Khmer town complete with its own set of traffic lights, a Phnom Penh trained hairdresser and a great little massage place at just $5 an hour. With the added advantage of being very close to Thailand, you might have to deal with three currencies, but it does means that you can regularly enjoy the luxuries of Nutella, muslei, yoghurts and milk. Although sadly, not cheese – you have to go to Battambang for that (fortunately it’s not far).

As you might have already guessed, one of the truly great things about Sisophon is its location – not only does it benefit from new tarmac roads, you can get out and about with no trouble at all. It’s actually quicker to get to Bangkok than it is to Phnom Penh, you can explore the beautiful countryside of Battambang over a leisurely weekend, try your luck in the Poipet casinos or take in a good dose of foreign food and temples in Siem Reap, all less than two hours away. And if you’re feeling a bit more adventurous, then why not head up to our very own temple, Banteay Chmar. A similar size to Angkor Wat, Banteay Chmar is gloriously undisturbed. You could easily spend the day almost entirely by yourself, climbing and exploring the ruins without having to fight the tour groups. Come quick though, as a new road linking it to both Siem Reap and Sisophon is in the pipeline.

But living in Sisophon isn’t all about everywhere else. If you can’t be bothered to go day-tripping, come to visit and you can sample the local restaurants: Red and Yellow Chairs place, Wooden Chairs place and Cow on the Mountain place – my favourite restaurant in the whole of Cambodia. Take a stroll round the market, delight in one of Coffee Man’s famous Khmer coffees, bask in the sunshine at the local fish sanctuary or simply explore the back roads of town, which seemingly go on forever. And if that isn’t enough, you can also cruise the countryside on your pushbike stopping for a chocolate ice cream in Country Love Park, Cambodia’s answer to Alice in Wonderland. I’m not sure what everyone else gets up to, but this picture-perfect wedding garden is a great place to explore, feed the fish and have nap in a hammock. Be sure to have your photograph taken next to the Kangaroo or King Kong before you leave.

So that’s Sisophon the town. But what about the people? You wont find many Barang, but they have a way of coming out of the woodwork when new volunteers arrive, and there’s always someone around. A diverse group of Peace Corps, Aus Aid and VSO, people are scattered across the town and further out into the districts – everyone will always be up for a beer and everyone is always very welcome. When it comes to seeing a new face in town, the ex-pats are as curious as the locals. You only need to have been here a few weeks when you realize that if you don’t know them, they can’t be from around these parts – it wont take long for you to join in the staring!

Finally then, there are the Khmer’s themselves. I used to think Anne a bit mad, but when I visit my local money change lady and we have our traditional chat about rice, and when I go to the shop to get some photocopies and leave half an hour later laden with fruit and two new friends, I wonder if maybe she was right after all. It may not have elephants or waterfalls, but whether I’ve been to Battambang, Phnom Penh or Bangkok, it’s always great to get home.

1) Some cows
2) Some dust
3) The kangaroo and Country Love Park
4) A back street
5) The market

Friday, 26 February 2010

All the Khmer ladies

If you’re female and ever go to Cambodia there is one activity that you should not leave the country without doing. Be proud and go Khmer!

As a birthday treat (yes, I’m that behind on my blog), for the reasonable sum of $12 each, me and my four girls (it would have been five, but Ilya was doing something productive) turned up at Apple photo-studio ready to be done up as Khmer as possible. Photo-shoots in Cambodia are a pretty big deal, you can get them done anywhere – family portraits, wedding photos or just for fun. You will be airbrushed to high heaven and look beautiful no matter what:

Quote: “You want me to airbrush you slimmer? No worry, we can do that”.

It took five hours, a LOT of make-up, fake eyelashes, fake hair and some sparkly dresses – but it was worth every second of it! It was even worth the disheartening realization that the dress was not going to zip up and would have to be pinned into place. It’s difficult not to laugh when you pinned into place, balanced on a chair, head up, chin down, look at the camera… and relax.

And the result? Well, you can be the judge of that.

Up, up and away...

Having spent the last month (or two) moaning to anyone who will listen, you will be pleased to know that I think the textbook six month slump is beginning to lift… I’m in the process of adapting a new found resignation for loud Khmer music and have had the busiest, most productive week of the last three months. And I even made time for six episodes of House, Season 1.

What’s caused this change? I think it’s a mix of things. Acceptance of what I can and can’t do in the next six to nine months perhaps, and the confidence to just give it a go – what have I got to loose? And whatever happens, at least I’ll go home knowing that I tried. In light of this I’m running two workshops and a study visit next month. Oh and my translator will be on paternity leave for half of it, so that should be interesting… still, it’s given me a bit more purpose and it’s nice to feel that I might actually being doing something useful.

The other big change I think is that I haven’t had to be anywhere else for the last week and half. Since Christmas everything has been so disrupted that I haven’t really known if I’ve been coming or going. I’ve been up and down from Phnom Penh for language training and workshops and with the house being broken into as well – it’s all quite unsettling. But now I really feel like I live here again. Even just being around and about makes a big difference. Going for daily coffee with Jan and Mary makes everything feel a bit more like team work, and zipping around on my pushbike or moto and doing little things like going to the money-change lady, or bike-fixer lady, makes me feel more part of the town. Oh, and I also cracked and hired a cleaner. You have no idea what a relief it is to not have to think about dusting everyday or about when I’m going to wipe up the new selection of gecko turds off the kitchen floor. She (Netta) only comes twice a week but already I feel more on top of my life and love her for washing my bedsheets (ever tried doing that in a bucket? Rinsing them out is impossible).

Anyway, so I’m feeling more spirited, and that’s what’s important. I have work to do for the next five weeks and that’s great. I’ve even made some time to go into my schools and play with the kids (in a vain attempt to stop them staring at me) – actually I did this a few weeks ago, but was too busy feeling sorry for myself to put it into a blog entry.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010


And the joys just keep coming. Having been in Phnom Penh for two weeks, caught up with my girls, learnt some Khmer and generally had a nice time – I headed back home full of ideas for work.

It did feel a bit weird coming back. I’ve been surrounded by people for the last six weeks and now I’m by myself – and though I’ve got a small but lovely group of friends up in Sisophon, it was still my birthday and I’m really starting to miss my life back home.

So, as if by some special power – someone knew this and just when I was starting to feel better I get back from work and my house has been broken into. What worries me most is that is wasn’t opportunistic. Someone (or, judging by the footprints, several someones) thought it necessary to climb over my fence, onto my roof and to actually saw a hole into the wall of my bedroom. Fortunately I had my valuables locked up in a drawer in my wardrobe – so they didn’t get anything worthwhile. In fact, as I keep discovering things that they have taken, these include:

My bin liners (presumably to carry my stuff in)
A top
A skirt
Some pretty fabric I was going to get trousers made from
Some manky cushions
Peanut butter
Dried noodles
x3 yoghurts, x3 tins of coconut milk, x1 tin of sweetcorn
My iron

They left:
The TV
A collection of DVDs
A motorbike

I don’t know what to make of it to be honest. My landlady was great, she was round in a shot – she insisted on staying the night, the hole has been fixed and barbed wire now goes round the whole fence and on the roof where they climbed. It’s not as pretty as it used to be, but it’s secure. But the feeling that someone wanted to get into my house so badly un-nerves me. And they did it in broad daylight. On my birthday (although of course they didn’t know that, just bad timing I guess). I don’t know what to think anymore. I wanted to come here so badly, but now? Well, I just don’t know.


Looking back over my blog, particularly at the photographs, I can see just how easy it is to create an impression of luxury and paradise. And why not? Although I knew I was coming here to work, I also knew that this year would probably turn out to be one of the hardest, but one of the best years of my life. I expected that, no matter what, I would love it. I think everyone expected, and still expects, that.

So here’s what the photos don’t tell you. For the last couple of weeks (or, if I’m honest about it, the last month), I’ve been finding life in Cambodia very difficult. It’s not that I don’t like it, it’s that I don’t love it, and this is a very strange realization to have had. It’s like when you start university and everyone asks you how it is, and you just know that the auto-response to this question should be “Fantastic thanks!”. So what happens when it isn’t? I feel like the fact that I don’t love it is some big guilty secret – like there’s something wrong with me for thinking this. How could you not love it?

Well, the novelty of being woken up at 4am most mornings has well and truly worn off, and I’m tired. It’s hot. I miss my family and I miss my boyfriend. Maybe that would all be okay if I really felt like what I was doing was worth it. But I’m just not overly sure it is. There is so much built into the politics Cambodia, and it is so saturated with NGOs that you really do start to wonder what work you can do – and is it worth all the frustration and heart-ache? This is not a plea for people to tell me that my just being here is making a difference to peoples lives, because that really is not the case – I’m not even sure how much people actually want the help we are offering. And all this is very hard to come to terms with. Cambodia has surprised me in many ways, but I really didn’t expect to not like it all that much. Well, I mean – Cambodia’s great, but living it, working it and breathing it is something different entirely.

Monday, 18 January 2010

Hammocks, hamburgers and mojitos: A Cambodian Adventure

He came, he saw and he’s gone again. For one whole month I had someone to fix pipes, fight spiders and leave the toilet seat up. I must say, I do feel a little sorry for Matt - given that as VSO has now taken over my life, it’s all I talk/think and stress about. I’m not sure how varied my conversation was, but he put up with me and provided some much needed moral support and perspective. Put simply, once he’d got the hang of washing his feet before getting into bed – I really enjoyed having him here, and can’t help but feel a little forlorn that he’s gone… I know this whole thing was my idea, but that doesn’t make it any easier to say goodbye.

Still, in the month that he was here we did manage to see quite a bit of Cambodia. I took a week off, and as true Champagne Backpackers (backpacking in style) we started in Siem Reap, took in the Angkor Temples, headed down to Phnom Penh for a visit to the Tuol Sleng museum and then headed south to Kep where we whiled away a few days in various hammocks and on the beautiful beach of Rabbit Island. Rested and refreshed we headed across to Kampot for New Year and then back up to Phnom Penh before catching the bus back home. We even managed to fit in a weekend in Battambang and another in Siem Reap!

And what have we discovered about Cambodia? You will find the best burger in the Gecko CafĂ© in Battambang, some solid Mojitos across the country but particularly in Siem Reap (at a bargain Happy Hour price of $1.50) and that hammocks are very comfortable, particularly with a beer in hand and a good view. Oh, and if you do decide to moto up to the Banteay Ch’mar temple, it will take you two and a half hours each way and will give you sores – my advice? Get a share-taxi.

Anyway, here are some photos of the best bits: