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Thursday, 6 August 2015

I taught a class!

My class

I arrived at work bright and early at 8am to meet my friend who was taking me to one of her NGO schools today. We drove out to a remote area and I stepped out of the car and into the most picturesque little tropical garden. Its tropical status was confirmed by the swarms of WHOPPING GREAT red ants scurrying across the ground.

I was led out to a single classroom and greeted curiously and enthusiastically by many little Cambodian pre-schoolers. Their fascination with me took me somewhat by surprise, as there are many foreigners in the city of Siem Reap and so I didn't think of myself as being particularly novel. These kids however, were surprisingly into me, in their own reserved way. It made me feel very 'gap yah'. Which is really not what I am. The children weren't really speaking to me - but were following me round. Although one boy with special educational needs walked straight up to me and wrapped his arms around my waist and put his head on my chest in a big hug. Being raised in the British culture of 'never touch students', this totally threw me. However, being potentially the most tactile person alive, I managed to muster a sincere hand on the back in response for him.

I was taken to their other classroom which was much more basic than the first with no full walls, and was given the opportunity to teach an illustration class. (I was kind of put on the spot actually and asked to teach with zero preparation time. But I think it went okay!) We started off by talking about what some of their houses look like and I tried to visualise a Khmer house on the whiteboard. Unbeknownst to me, this was apparently a direction to them to copy onto their paper what I had drawn. They all started copying it down, line for line. I was super impressed with their drawing ability. These kids were around five years old and their drawings were pretty accurate! I then drew for them what an English house might look like - and they all dutifully copied that down too.

Next we progressed onto self-portraits (with correct proportions on the face) and then the sun (someone's favourite animal?) dogs, and cats. The end results were actually rather impressive. Some of those kids could really draw!

I really enjoyed teaching them but would have been totally stuck if it wasn't for their usual teacher who was translating for me. Thanks Teach. I also learnt that apparently when speaking to someone here you don't look directly at them, and so I was intimidating the children with my crazy eye contact. Sorry children. They seemed proud of their work at the end and were all showing each other what they had each achieved.

Later, during their break I saw all the kids running to sit on the ground and play 'extreme-style' with duplo. I don't think I've ever seen duplo so well enjoyed before. It was seriously worn out. After a few minutes I realised that many of the children played with the duplo like little cars, pushing it along the ground. Ahh. That's why. 

I am so grateful for the opportunity to see and even teach inside a local Cambodian school. I think I will come back from this trip with a much greater understanding of Khmer culture than I ever could have predicted after such a short time.

Do you get on with little children? Have you ever taught?

Love R&C 

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

A Magnificent Day at the Angkor Wat Temples - Part 1

So happy and grotty! Woo great combo!
The Angkor Wat temples are the most beautiful places I have seen since coming to Cambodia. I can see now why it was chock full of tourists even during monsoon season. I would recommend them highly, and would say that the temples are bucket list worthy. There was a lot of gasping to be had and I lasted all day outside, despite the 30+ degree heat and humidity, so it must have been good (although I now have a very impressive T-shirt tan.) I was picked up at 9am by my tuk tuk driver for the day. He was a friend of a (new) friend and was totally lovely. He even offered to take my photo in front of things, which is a first for this trip!  I'm so glad, because I was thinking I would have no evidence of my having been in Cambodia. 

My most favouritist temple - one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen in my life

Look at that appropriate dressing. So conservative.

I was quite disappointed to see how many of the temples were being spoiled with scaffolding, cranes and 'repair' work. I'd heard from a Cambodian man that the Vietnamese are cleaning the temples and the walls are crumbling as a result. He also said that they've been doing a lot of digging. It certainly became apparent today that the temples do not belong to the Cambodians. Other richer countries own all the various temples, which is quite sad. I was also saddened to see how humans had had a negative effect  on the local wildlife - monkeys totally tamed, running around stealing food, and elephants tethered and forced to walk all day with passengers in the heat. I spoke briefly with my tuk tuk driver about it, and he agreed with what I had been wondering which was that the elephants are treated cruelly, and worked far too hard. Poor elephants. Please don't ride them unless you know they're treated very well and don't work long hours!

Monkeys observe the delicious looking princess bananas

Dance monkey dance... 

An elephant obediently posing for a photo

Bayon! My second favourite

My tuk tuk driver just happened to be a really good photographer?
Apsara dancer carvings adorn most of the temples but over the years their costume changes
I had an absolutely fantastic day! It was a really effective way of showing me succinctly ancient Cambodian culture, architecture and history and so I'd really recommend it if you're thinking of visiting. Also be aware that the temples are all miles from each other, as it used to be a province, so I'd recommend some sort of vehicle for painless visiting. 

Love R&C

Monday, 3 August 2015

How Drinking Alcohol is Perceived in Cambodia

One of the most famous parts of Siem Reap (ignoring of course, the world famous Angkor Wat Temples) is Pub Street. Somehow, I haven't actually visited it yet. You see, the attitude to drinking here, is quite different from the way we view it in Europe. Especially amongst Christians. In the UK it is perfectly normal to have a glass of wine, or perhaps a beer with your dinner. Or maybe you're meeting with friends at the pub to catch up, or going to a bar to have a nice evening. You get the idea. It's not a big deal. But it seems that there is no divide between casual drinking and getting drunk here in Cambodia. You drink = you're drunk. Speaking to a friend who's lived here for a while, she was telling me that when Cambodians drink, they often don't stop until they're quite drunk. Then once they get to this state, it's very easy for arguments to break out and for people to knife each other. Apparently also gambling starts once people drink, and Buddha forbids that. 

I'm noticing that a lot of people are less interested in my skills/opinions than whether I have a boyfriend or not. (Of course, it would never cross their minds that I could have a girlfriend!) Sometimes I notice when I expressed a strong or "controversial" opinion in front of a man, he will look at the ground and not make eye contact with me. I don't think women are meant to have vocal opinions in this country. Some people I have met seem to place a lot of value on my apparent 'beauty' (it only comes from being pale, and that in turn is nothing that I have worked for or achieved. It's skin colour.) I find being valued only for my appearance to be very undermining and a bit oppressive. I get the impression that having a boyfriend here is some sort of status symbol that one should strive to attain. But it is also a mark of your worth, and you long for it because it validates your looks, which are your only commodity it seems. When I explained to one lady that in England, having a boyfriend is nothing to do with your looks, but just based on whether you want one or not, she had a real shocking response for me. If you are the right age to have a boyfriend, and you don't have one, people will wonder if you're not good looking. They'll wonder why, and what's wrong with you. 

Love R&C

Saturday, 1 August 2015

What Does the Rooster Say?

After two weeks experience of the beautiful dawn chorus courtesy of the local roosters I can now give you the definitive answer on what roosters say. I'm sorry Britain, you are wrong in thinking that they say "cockle-doodle-doo". I know you have baited breath, and your patience has been worth the wait, because I can now bring meaning to your life in the form of answers to unanswerable questions. What does the rooster say? Well folks, the rooster says "cock√© cockoh". Just thought you'd like to know. And if I ever find myself in a darkened corner with one I will wring its bloody neck. 

I've got a joke for you that a friend told me about Cambodians!
 "Why do Cambodians not stop for red traffic lights at night?"
I don't know, why don't Cambodians stop for red traffic lights at night?
"Because someone will come and put a gun to their heads and rob them!"
Oh wow. That's not a joke is it...

On a significantly less terrifying note - look at this monster harmless spider which decided to pay me a visit.

This is just a friendly house spider, nothing to worry about

As is sensible and proper, I leapt up from the sofa and started laughing nervously/uncontrollably. 

I tried a wonderful food thing yesterday at the market that I forgot to mention! It was a toasted wrap filled with sticky rice and coconut slivers (coconut isn't dry here because it's so fresh), and sugar! It was hot and delicious and probably bad for me, but so so good for me. Mmmm.

Fill it up baby

Lastly, just a quick note on how I'm handling being alone abroad. I'm doing okay, really! Considering how anxious I was, I am having a truly excellent time. I only ever get homesick, scared or lonely in the evenings. But it's totally within handling range. I am incredibly grateful that the new house I'm staying at has wifi. You don't realise how much you can do with wifi. It truly is a magnificent invention. I am also meeting some really quite wonderful people. Lots of the people I've been given contact details for are Christians. Their faith is truly inspiring. I've been having many conversations that have deeply affected me, and I think I will come home from Cambodia changed a bit. I suppose you always are when you have a huge experience like this.

It's also interesting how a need for friends can drive you and change your personality a bit. I have become so forward! I must look like a puppy dog who just is desperate to have a bum-sniffing exchange. Scanning around, head flitting about, "will you be my friend!?" I find playing very loud happy music helps, as well as keeping myself busy in the evenings. 

Spent my evening drawing this for a friend. It's a work in progress!
What do you do when you're trying to entertain yourself? What's the one comfort thing you can't do without?

Love R&C

Friday, 31 July 2015

I've Moved!

Hey so sorry I missed a post yesterday, I was moving cities! I am now in Siem Reap (sim/seem ree epp) and I'll be spending my two and a bit remaining weeks here. Siem Reap at a first glance is Phnom Penh's chilled out cousin. There are more trees here and the pace of life seems a little slower, with less traffic (thank God) and maybe even less dust? More on the dust later. I think I'm going to like it here. I am no longer living with a Khmer family but I am staying with some other people in a pastor's house who is out of town at the moment. It's very different from the one I was in before.

Some more general observations that I hadn't mentioned before
1) The currency system is a bit messy here in Cambodia. There are two standard currencies: US dollars and riel (although apparently when you get closer to other borders, more get introduced.) I didn't understand how a country could employ two types of currency before I came but now I get it. Let me enlighten you.
- US dollars are 'stronger' and everyone wants them (but not if they're torn - we only take pristine notes here please)
- They only use dollar notes, not any coins
- If you pay for a product with dollar notes, and there is any change that doesn't make a whole dollar, you receive the change in riel instead of US coins.
- If you pay for something with riel in a shop, you will incur a small charge as the shop take a commission with the exchange rate

2) This country is super super dusty! Whenever you climb into a tuk tuk or anything, the driver whips the seat with a towel to take the dust off. Sometimes you feel it beating against you as you drive. Dust gets in your eyes when you're driving constantly which can be a bit of an issue with contact lenses. So if you're planning to come here and wear them, bring eye drops!

3) I went shopping for the very first time (on a tight budget you see) the day before yesterday and I kept noticing something no matter which shop I went into: I was being followed. No matter where I went in the store, a member of staff would tail me pretty closely. Now, in the UK, this means that the staff think you're planning to steal something. So I was taking umbrage at their follow-the-leader game. Someone later explained to me that it's more likely that they're trying to wait on me with enthusiasm, should I have any need of their assistance. I still don't like it though...

4) Someone just asked me my weight yesterday, out of the blue. She was complimenting me on my long dress, and telling me how tall it made me look. Then was just like Wham Bam! It took me totally by surprise and I managed to stutter a weak "I don't really know". Which is true. I made a choice a while back to not weigh myself very often, but rather decide whether I was living healthily enough by whether my clothes fit or not. I think it helps to prevent obsessive behaviour. She was pretty disappointed to not have an answer.

5) Barely anyone drives a car here. By far the most popular mode of transport is motorbike. And it's rather fabulous when you're all whizzing down the road in a pack, you feel like you're in a motorbike gang. However the people who do drive cars, all seem to drive 4x4s. The majority of them also drive a Lexus. Whaaaaattt???? I don't think I understand this country of polar opposites. Although I've heard that Cambodians are very into status symbols. Maybe that's what's going on here. 


I RODE ON A MOTORBIKE FOR THE FIRST TIME IN MY LIFE. I was petrified to begin with. I'd been totally adamant that I wouldn't ride on one since before I even got here because I know of too many people who have been killed on them. I didn't have a choice today however, because no safe tuk tuk drivers were available and I needed to go to work, so my new Filipino friend took me on the back of her motorbike.

Exceptionally happy to have not had an accident
I pretty much prayed the whole time. But fortunately Siem Reap's traffic is not a patch on Phnom Penh and so I think I was considerably safer. However, no sooner had I mastered the art of riding on the back, was it necessary for me to learn how to be a passenger when there would be three of us on the bike! All in one day I tell you!

Again, glad to be alive
We three drove to an incredible market/fairground which was buzzing full of local people. It was spectacular! There were little market stalls selling clothes, shoes and bags, and sellers sitting on the ground selling food. In another area there were little rides and fairground games. I was so happy to have been taken there!


I even got to have a little fun playing 'throw darts at these balloons wedged in the wall' and managed to win a prize! I chose a bag of jellies, because alas, I didn't know how I would fit a large plastic frog in my suitcase.

It was great to be able to relax and have fun in the evening and still be safe
 We ended up buying some food from the sellers, including a bag of saomao fruit which look very intriguing and taste a bit like a lychee once you've peeled off the skin. If you're ever over this way, I would recommend you try one!

Paand o' saomao please

Ooh look at dat freaky fruit
Love R&C

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

The Royal Palace, An Ignorant Australian, and a Thorough Hair Wash

This stunning building is one of many in the courtyard

The Royal Palace is the most beautiful thing I have seen since arriving in Cambodia. It took my breath away when I stepped into the courtyard and looked up at the buildings. I would have stayed outside and taken more photos, but the heat is something not to be contended with. It sucks the energy from you after five minutes in direct sunlight and so I had to quickly scurry away inside the building for shade. 

I sat here and drew and it was marvellous. Many people were very curious about what I was doing and repeatedly stopped and peered over me to see my work. I don't know about fellow illustrators/artists out there, but this really puts me off.

Work in progress
One such inquisitor came over to stand next to me and started speaking English. Here is how the conversation went.
Man: "Oh look a draw-er."
Me: *Looks up* "Yes, I'm an illustrator..." explain why I'm in Cambodia
Man: "Are you from Cambodia?"
Me: "No, I'm from England."
Man: "You don't look English" 
Me: (You don't look ignorant and yet, here we both are...) "What's that supposed to mean?"
Man: Ignores question and babbles on about some rubbish, which eventually became this beauty of a line...
"The roads are filthy here. Have you seen? They really should clean that up."
Me: "Many people live in poverty here..." 
Man: "Also there's nothing for the kids to do here. Cambodia's just like Vietnam, but with less to do. There are no tourist attractions."
I think you get the gist. The guy was visiting Cambodia from Australia for a family holiday. I'm thinking maybe he didn't do his research before picking a location?

Later on in the day my host took me to get my hair washed because I'd expressed interest in the unusual pampering ritual here. It was so bizarre! First of all, it wasn't done over a sink but right in my seat just with a towel over my shoulders. Second of all, the lady who ended up washing my hair was slumped in the seat I was meant to take and didn't get up for quite a while, leaving me hovering awkwardly wondering if I was being rejected and should leave. 

First you pick your shampoo brand - I chose Pantene because I recognised it. 

Next she squirts it directly onto your head and starts rubbing it in to create a lather.

Next she picks up another Pantene bottle filled with water and squirts that at your head. More massaging ensues until the whole head is foamy.

Note my face of amused suspicion and all their drinks in front of me - bags of wee I tell you!

Then comes the massage part where my head is scraped a lot in different ways for about 20 minutes. More water is added periodically and when the lather gets too much she scoops it off and dumps it in a nearby bucket. 

Also note that I brought my own hairbrush, as I predicted that multiple people would use the same brush and I've had nits as a kid. I'm not having them again. 


What's the weirdest pampering you've ever experienced?

Love R&C

Monday, 27 July 2015

Life in a Refugee Camp

Three Cambodian girls smile for the camera in the Thailand refugee camp

After a week of getting to know people and breaking the ice, one lady here chose to share her incredible story with me. Apologies if the writing is a bit disjointed, I'm trying to write as closely to her direct quotes as I can.

She was born in refugee camp which was on the Thailand side of the Thai/Cambodia border. She said her family were there because of the wars and situation in Cambodia in the 80s (Vietnam, Thailand, Khmer Rouge, US). Living as a refugee was very hard for the family as they, like many others living there, were poor and relied on UN donations as well as their own jobs to keep food on the table. She used to help her mother make little cakes to sell in the refugee camp. Her father worked and her mother was left to look after the six children by herself - recounting these memories caused her to well up as she told me how hard it must have been for her mother.

Many people were forced to flee the war in Cambodia

She told me that their houses were made of bamboo and leaves, and even their beds were made of bamboo. I was shocked that the houses were never developed even though this lady lived in the refugee camp for 12 years. 

Although the family were fairly safe when inside the camp (I inferred that Thai people also relied on the UN support which was given to the Cambodians), it was incredibly dangerous to leave because Thai people would try to shoot you. She recounted how for four weeks she was unable to go to school because every time they tried to leave the camp there was horrific gunfire and it was far too dangerous. 

People outside the water station

I had not seen this woman be emotional before but clearly talking about her childhood and the difficulties she and her family were faced with was quite difficult for her. Many of my fellow colleagues in the shop I work for also grew up in the same refugee camp.

Although her story is nothing to do with me and I have no desire to make it about me, it did force me to realise that this is the reality that many people in the world grow up with. I am so incredibly fortunate to have never lived in a country that has been torn apart by war. I also feel incredibly guilty for privileges I have been blessed with growing up. I have never had to struggle for food, freedom or safety. I have had access to clean water and sanitation, and even simple things like bedding and a solid roof over my head. I could probably count on my hands the number of days I have stopped and remembered to be grateful for these things. I am ashamed to say that for most of my life I have taken them for granted. I am even more embarrassed to think about how often I have, not only forgotten to be grateful for the abundance I have been given, but have actually longed for more. Or been jealous of what another has. Or dreamed of acquiring more money in order to buy more things. Materialism is like a haze where you lose your sense of perspective. I have more than enough, I have no need for more. In fact I could absolutely afford to give things away. Generosity is not something that comes naturally in our culture. Is this something that you could see changing? Nearly half of all the people in the world live in poverty. The level of comfort I live at, even as a student, puts me within a bracket of 'very rich' people. We are the minority! I wonder what I could do to use my position of privilege to affect change for those who maybe don't get their voices heard.

Houses made of leaves
How much of what you own do you think you actually need? How much of what you own could you face giving away? 

Love R&C