The views expressed in this blog are my own and do not represent VSO.

19 April 2012

A final post

Yesterday I left Cambodia. I feel very sad about leaving as my time there and the people I spent it with are very special, but I’m glad that I had a very good final few weeks. Firstly, the Leo beer festival was lots of fun and for the last two days, as if I hadn’t already done enough for Cambodia’s beer industry, I ended up working with them selling beer with Tak and some other friends. I enjoyed it and actually we were so busy that I didn’t end up drinking very much, which was a nice change.

There were also several leaving events: a party in our house, pizza at Jemma and Dominique’s house, and a presentation from the staff at the POE where I work. It was very nice of people to organise things like that, and I particularly liked the present from the VSO lot in Mondulkiri, which was a Paul O’Connor special edition of Khmer whisky.

With all of that, I felt a bit stupid that I continued to hang around for another two or three weeks, but Khmer New Year was so much fun that I was glad I’d stayed. It involves lots of drinking and partying, even more so than normal. 

At one of the parties, Tak came back from the market with the trio of Bad Things - cow's liver, intestines and stomach - along with this particular delicacy. Can you guess what it is yet?

Tak came with me to Phnom Penh on Monday for a final few days. We had a nice time there, with his mum, friends Chumnit and Ratanak, and Dave and Neil. But it was very hard to say goodbye and I will miss them a lot.         

26 March 2012

Getting ready to leave

I’m not often described as a decisive person, but I think I might be getting worse. I used to be plagued by fairly minor dilemmas which mostly took place in supermarkets, but this week I’m been repeatedly changing my mind about when to leave Cambodia and I’ve noticed a faint tone of despair whenever the VSO staff answer my phone calls. I decided initially to leave on Sunday 8th April, and just before my flight was booked I thought I might like to stay for Khmer New Year, so changed it to 18th April. Then it occurred to me that I have no house, no job, nothing to do and not very much money, (and also a wedding in England I’d like to go to) so I tried to move it back to the 8th. Before I could change my mind again, though, my flights had already been booked so I will be leaving on 18th April.

This is exactly five weeks after I was forced into having a Phnom Penh leaving party to suit the plans of jet-setters Gilly and Sam, who won’t be in Cambodia in April. It’s always a bit awkward when you have a leaving party and then don’t leave. It was a great weekend, though, and it reminded me how lucky I’d been to arrive with such a nice group. They had organised a special edition of NSJ, the VSO Cambodia magazine which I’d co-edited with Sam – two editions which are already being talked about as the glory days of NSJ. It was a brilliant present and I was very touched by all of the contributions, though less impressed by the insinuations about my relationship with Tak. (I think my reputation never recovered from the ménage a trois gaffe in a previous blog.)

In the last few weeks I’ve had my first illness – nasty hookworms that came in through my feet when I was digging the well. The doctor in Phnom Penh gave me around forty packs of medicine and instructions about what to eat. Luckily she didn’t say anything about drinking, and I’m assuming that getting the little parasites a bit tipsy will help the medicine kill them off. Ingran, who is a doctor and came back to Cambodia last week, confirmed the validity of this tried and tested approach. This is fortunate, as there is a five-day Leo Beer festival this week, and beer is definitely the healthiest of the drinks available here. There was the same festival in Kampong Cham when we first arrived eighteen months ago, with the same promotions, the same presenters, and the same catchy tune which is easily the best song in Cambodia. (There can’t be many countries where advert jingles are better than all of the available pop songs.) So it feels like a fitting way to end my time in Cambodia. Although I fear it’s probably also a fitting symbol of my time in Cambodia.  

08 February 2012

A quick entry

It’s been quite an eventful few days. Firstly Tak’s house-building suffered a bit of a setback when the previous landowner turned up and pointed out that they were building on the wrong land. Tak’s land is actually a lot smaller than he thought and he’s disappointed that there aren’t any shady trees (“drinking places”). But it’s lucky that he hired particularly lazy builders who hadn’t done much work, so it hasn’t taken them long to relocate to the correct land.

In better news Eng finally went for a scan and is having a girl, which everyone is happy about. I was a bit shocked, though, that the baby isn’t due until the end of June, because Eng is really quite fat already. I think I’ll need to keep a closer eye on my dwindling supply of Mars bars in future.

And just a note about Tak’s mum. Tak told me the other day that he had a dream that he and I were in the forest and I got bitten by a snake. Tak’s mum’s reaction was to ask if I died and, when Tak said yes, to clap her hands repeatedly and say, “Good, good, good.” It’s taken me almost a week to understand that, according to her interpretation, it means I’ll be getting married soon and will stay in Cambodia forever. The logic is that the snake represents a woman, the bite is her choosing me, and that by killing me it means that she will stay with me until I die – which, after a snake bite, is presumably not very long. Whether this logic is common in Cambodian culture or just among the slightly mental is still unclear, but I’m not generally convinced by Tak’s mum’s theories. She claims that visiting Angkor Wat in Siem Reap will make you live for a long time, because the temples are very old, and this week she banned Tak from eating chicken because she thinks it will damage his skin, given that chicken skin isn’t very smooth. Luckily for Tak, who is fond of chicken, he hasn’t taken any notice of anything his mum has said since about 1992.   

06 February 2012


January is usually the worst month of the year, particularly if you spend it in a secondary school classroom, but this one in Cambodia has been lots of fun. There have been more weddings, trips to Pu Trom and Sreiee, parties with Eng’s friends from the bank who, having a bit more money than Tak’s friends, tend to have really good parties, and lots of nice evenings with friends. (The recycling man who came yesterday was pretty staggered with the amount of beer cans we had and had to go home to get bigger bags.)

Work has been a bit slow because there have been lots of workshops and trainings, making it difficult to do activities with the teachers in schools. Luckily, I seem to have found alternative employment as cheap foreign labour on Tak’s building site, as his house-building has finally got underway. After a long process of applying for permission from the Forestry Administration and various other departments, Tak managed to get his wood from the forest to his friend’s house in Pu Trom, which at one point involved carrying a massive log through the forest on the back of his motorbike. I couldn’t help very much, so was pleased when it came to loading the wood on to the truck to take to Sen Monorom. As this involves no skill whatsoever, I was able to help, and in fact I was better than most of the other people because they were all about a foot shorter than me. I was particularly pleased that I was much better than Tak who, though quite strong, hasn’t done any exercise in all the time I’ve known him.

Tak has hired two builders who come from another province but spend their time going from one building site to another, where they set up camp until the work is finished. They wear hats and have loud, deep voices which I find hard to understand, and smoke all the time and squat and sit round fires in the evening, and so they remind me of characters from a Steinbeck novel. I think if they were Steinbeck characters they’d probably be a bit nicer though – Tak is finding it hard to get them to do any work and he seems to be doing a lot of the work that he’s paying them to do. Eng’s dad has come to help out which is good as he can oversee things while Tak is at work. ‘Overseeing’ was the job I was after, but Tak says he’s got me earmarked as well-digger, which I’m not sure is the most glamorous job on the site. Expect me to come back to England looking like Hulk Hogan. Or to be stuck down a fifty-metre hole in Cambodia.

We have also been to Sreiee twice this month, probably my favourite school and the one that used to require an overnight stay. The first time I went it felt like Macondo from the novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, a village that you stumble across unexpectedly in the middle of a vast jungle – it even has smooth round rocks 'as big as prehistoric eggs' which Garcia Marquez describes in the opening page of that novel. But things are about to change: a new road has almost been finished and you can now reach the village within about 45 minutes. This might be good for economic development, but having seen what’s happening in the rest of the country, it will probably mean the arrival of big rubber companies throwing people off their land and cutting down the forest. Either way, Sreiee will change dramatically, I think.

03 January 2012

Christmas and New Year

Happy New Year. I spent the night eating soggy fish and chips for one at Heathrow Airport, followed by twenty hours on planes where not a drop of celebratory Cava was served. They’d also run out of food from the ‘Western’ menu so my last meal before returning to Cambodia was something disgusting, pickled and Korean, served with rice.

Before all that, however, I had a great two weeks in England. I’d planned ambitiously to put on ten kilos in order to survive another three months of the Cambodian diet (as well as my tendency to spend too much money on beer and not enough on food). But despite eating past the pain almost every day, I failed miserably, putting on just 200g, which I think is the equivalent of a low-fat sandwich. I did manage to fill my suitcase with chocolate and Christmas cake, so I might be able to put on a bit more weight over the next few weeks, although I probably need to learn the Khmer for ‘Get those thieving Cambodian hands off my English food’.

As this blog is about Cambodia, I won’t write everything that happened over Christmas, except that I had a great time seeing everyone and eating everything. It made me realise that I’m very lucky to have such good friends and family, and made me wonder why I keep moving so far away from them. The fortnight was also the first chance I’ve had to make direct comparisons between England and Cambodia; here are some of the things I observed. (I’m copying a similar format used in Sam's blog after he returned from England last year.)

  1. Hot water from the tap is really great. After a few months in Cambodia in which I’d told people that British taps have hot water, I’d begun to have doubts and wondered whether I’d imagined it all, as the idea seemed so absurd. But it was true. I really enjoyed the washing-up I did over Christmas.  I did a lot of it, partly because it was a bit like a nice bath for my hands, and partly because I’d also forgotten that many British houses have dishwashers.

  1. Things are much easier when you’re speaking your native language. I really like learning Khmer and I particularly like the ego-boost you get from speaking to strangers who are highly impressed with even the most basic phrases, often responding with warm invitations to come and have a drink with them, or marry their daughters. I’d even learnt so much that, when trying to speak Catalan or even Spanish to Jim’s friends Luis and Muriel, I could only think of Khmer, and in fact the only Catalan word I could remember was ‘Adeu’, meaning ‘Goodbye’, which I decided would sound a bit rude in mid-conversation. Nonetheless, it was really nice to speak English again.

  1. Breakfasts are much better in England. Tea and toast beats a bowl of super noodles any day. Similarly, cheese, pizza, roast chicken, chocolate, fresh milk etc are all better than rice, and are considerably better than insects and intestines.
Jim cooks chicken

  1. Saying hello is nicer than saying goodbye. The two weeks were over very quickly and, although this time it won’t be for long as I’m due to finish my placement at the end of March, coming home will also mean saying goodbye to lots of good friends here.

  1. I have good friends in both places. I was obviously very impressed with all of the parties that were organised for me in England (although I think some of the guests were a bit confused and kept going on about Christmas or something), but I was also quite touched that Tak organised a surprise leaving party the day before I left. He’s living in particularly austere times, so he did his usual trick of inviting friends and then telling them to go and buy beer, but it was very nice all the same.

  1. Cambodia really is very poor. You get used to the way things are here, but spending two weeks in one of the richest countries in the world, and also returning via South Korea which must be one of the richest places in Asia, makes you see it all afresh.

  1. South Korea is definitely not on the way home. After flights of over twenty-four hours, I’ll make sure I’ve got a world map next time I’m booking plane tickets.