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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


  1. Sounds like you've found your match. Step up to the challenge and you'll touch so many lives there and back home through your blog.

  2. Love the picture of 'some dust'. Says it all, really!
    Lots of love,
    Mum and Dad xx

  3. Good on you Jen, fly the flag for Swai! Though hang on, "you’ll find it on the cross roads of three major destinations: Battambang, Poipet and Siem Reap" - isn't there a major destination to the north also...?! x