Beautiful, and a bit barmy-Bagan

“If you are a real Myanmar, you must have been to Bagan.”

Having brought ourselves up to temperature in Yangon, we were set to explore the most symbolic of landscapes that Myanmar has to offer-the pagoda saturated plains of Bagan.
Bagan is an ancient city located in the Mandalay Region, from the 9th to 13th centuries it was the capital of the Kingdom of Pagan, and between the 11th and 13th centuries, over 10,000 Buddhist temples, pagodas and monasteries were constructed here. I would wager that when most people think of Myanmar (or Burma), then the vista of temples stretching out over Bagan’s plains would be the image that comes to the fore of their mind.
Today there are over 2000 temples remaining in the area, and not surprisingly is the main tourist hotspot for all those visiting Myanmar.

Having done a little research, we opted for the night train from Yangon to Bagan, the words of the Man in Seat 61 providing some comfort about the journey ahead:

Burma’s British-built railways are less developed than others in Southeast Asia, but you’ll find the trains are a wonderful way to get around and experience the country at ground level, avoiding unnecessary domestic flights and cramped buses. The journeys are as much an adventure as the country itself.

Now I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that anyone who would like to travel to Bagan from Yangon, take a bus! For sure the train was an experience of sorts, but not the type of experience you expect outside of a roller-coaster at a theme park! The reassurance that we got from it being British built, was quickly dispelled when we realised that since the British built the railways, there has been next to no maintenance on the tracks. I kid you not when I say that the train felt like it was actually airborne at some points, and fellow travellers even experienced one of the carriages disconnecting during their journey. We had even opted for 1st class sleeper-but there was no chance of getting any sleep on this journey. While it was a giggle, and while the light lasted we were treated to some gorgeous countryside-it was also hard work, and so I would approach the journey with some caution!

Remnants of the past, graffiti as we leave Yangon

Remnants of the past, graffiti as we leave Yangon

One of the few shots which I managed to catch out of the train window!

One of the few shots which I managed to catch out of the train window!

Railway side footy

Railway side footy

Notice the ladders on the palm trees, they fix these when the trees are young so as to make accessing their harvest easier when the tree has reached maturity!

Notice the ladders on the palm trees, they fix these when the trees are young so as to make accessing their harvest easier when the tree has reached maturity!

Shaken, rattled and rolled with the all too familiar bleary eyes, we thanked the travel gods upon our safe arrival at Bagan and looked forward to what should be another epic experience. The usual kerfuffle greeted us at the station, with the locals fully capitalising on your confusion and charging premium rates for your transportation. In addition to the taxi fee, you also get hit with a tourist tax on entry to the area, but there can be little complaint about paying to see such a magnificent spectacle.
The first thing that struck us as we ventured towards the town of Nyaung Oo was that the area was a lot more desolate than we had expected-with memories of the images of Bagan bringing up lush green pastures dotted with temples; the reality is that the trees are few and far between-especially noticeable with the temperatures once again hitting 46 degrees. It is worth noting that we arrived at the peak of the dry season though, and so perhaps the desert plains are transformed once the rainy season arrives.
On arrival we wasted little time and immediately hired one of the many electric motorbikes to get on with exploring. The heat was intense, the breeze on the bike offering little respite as it was more akin to being blasted in the face by a hairdryer! Still, we were in one of the most evocative landscapes in Asia-and so we had little cause for complaint.
There’s not really much that I can say about the plains of Bagan that cannot be communicated through the photos of the area, we spent 3 days bombing round these plains and exploring-quite superb!

Pretty comfortable on scooters nowadays!!

Pretty comfortable on scooters nowadays!!

Pretty much every direction had another picture perfect shot

Pretty much every direction had another picture perfect shot

Symmetry!

Symmetry!

Making the most of a shady spot!

Making the most of a shady spot!

Big Buddha....

Big Buddha….

Little Buddha

Little Buddha

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The intense heat definitely had its impact, we would be up and out of the hotel at 8.30AM, only to return for 11AM to hide from the sun before setting out once again to find various sunset spots. Even with our attempts at avoiding the high noon heat, the temperatures faced were still above 40 degrees each day, and with the fact that you need to remove your shoes at each temple-the soles of our feet were starting to show the impact of the blistering heat. After a while you settle into a certain style of ‘scuttle’ walk, much like someone walking over hot coals-I imagine that you could make quite a funny silent film watching people and their ungainly walks around the temples of Bagan!
After our three days of exploring it was time to move on to our next adventure, as with the experiences at Angkor and Ayutthaya, you definitely reach a certain saturation point when you see temple after temple after temple. Not that it stopped me from taking a whole load more photos….If you have the stomach for it, read on-otherwise I’ll hopefully see you again in my next post-The Road to Mandalay!

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Enter mystical Myanmar – Yangon

Having had a few days in the modern wonder that is Singapore, we landed in Yangon looking forward to exploring the mysteries of Myanmar.
Yangon is the former capital of Myanmar, and remains the largest city with a population in excess of 5 million. It was originally a small fishing village called Dagon centred about the Shwedagon Pagoda. In 1755 King Alaungpaya conquered the village and renamed it Yangon, since then settlements formed around the central Dagon area eventually forming the sprawling city of today. When you visit the city now, you will notice that it is now made up of a multitude of ‘townships’, a reminder of how the city developed from it’s humble beginnings. The British seized Yangon in the Anglo-Burmese War of 1852, and subsequently transformed Yangon into the commercial and political hub of British Burma-lining the streets with colonial buildings and British influence.

We arrived at our hotel in downtown and hit the streets to do some exploring-the par for course upon arriving anywhere on our travels. Stepping out onto the street and we were met with the most intense heat that I think I have ever experienced….The street temperature was 46 degrees! We ducked, dodged and weaved our way into every spot of shade possible as we ventured towards our first tourist spot-the 2,500 year old Sule Pagoda in central downtown. Not quite what you would expect from an ancient pagoda, nowadays it serves a dual purpose, the other being that of a rather busy roundabout. Supposedly enshrined in the temple is a hair of Buddha, given to two Burmese merchant brothers by Buddha himself. More recently, during the 1988 and 2007 protests, the Sule Pagoda was a meeting point for anti-government and pro-democracy protesters.
We negotiated the Yangon traffic to enter the temple and were soon hotfooting it around the pagoda-literally! At all religious sites in Myanmar you have to remove your shoes and socks and, bearing in mind the temperatures, it felt like we were walking on the surface of the sun! This feeling was amplified by the suns’ reflection off the quite wonderful golden stupa located in the middle of the temple-and soon we found ourselves a shady spot to simply sit, and absorb.

The Sule Roudabout....I mean the Sule Pagoda!

The Sule Roudabout….I mean the Sule Pagoda!

Ready to brave the heat once again, we set off to explore the colonial architecture of the Yangon streets. It was really tough, there’s no comfort of an air conditioned MRT like you have in Bangkok & Singapore-you just have to tackle the heat and traffic, and take it slow! Soon you realise that Yangon has a three dimensional street structure. I know that sounds like a strange statement, but it’s the best way that I can describe the fact that to find offices, shops and businesses you look all around on street level, as well as up. For example, our hotel was on the seventh and eighth floor of a building, with just a little doorway and a lift giving you access to all businesses in the building.

The colonial streets of Yangon

The colonial streets of Yangon

Not only street level, you can see the many businesses in the upper levels on the left

Not only street level, you can see the many businesses in the upper levels on the left

Walking around the streets we encountered street food like no other. Sure in Bangkok and Siem Reap you have street stalls selling bugs, but in Yangon the street vendors offer something quite different, but equally as difficult for us to comprehend. The best way that I can describe it is to call it ‘entrails fondue’, basically you have a street vendor with a large vat of hot oil, and a selection of unidentifiable ‘animal parts’. Locals just take a seat around vat, pick a nugget of choice, and then cook it themselves in the oil. I have to say that the thought of actually trying this cuisine didn’t even come close to crossing my mind. There have been a number of formally questionable culinary experiences over the last seven months, but this proved to be a step too far!
We did end up discovering some local fare, albeit not as risky as the ‘fondue’-and it was done so quite by accident. Settling down for the first bottle of Myanmar Beer and a street vendor comes around serving what I thought were salted peanuts, I managed to order some of what he was selling and we were given a container of sweetcorn and beans, accompanied with an unidentified paste. Not what we were expecting, but it was absolutely delicious, we still don’t know what the paste was (we were afraid to ask!) and haven’t seen this titbit anywhere else-so if you’re in Yangon, keep your eyes pealed. Frequenting the street café located under our hotel, we sampled eating as the locals do-a few beers and a number of little side dishes. Meat balls with chilli sauce, vegetable noodles, spiced sausage and more sweetcorn and beans-spot on!

Having explored the streets and Sule Pagoda, next on the list for Yangon were the central market and the famous Shewadagon Pagoda. The market is a welcome respite from the heat of the day, and so we headed there before heading up to the temple for sunset. Yangon market has to rate as once of the best ‘gift’ markets that we have been to, a cavern of jade, jewels, clothing and art. Interesting, bustling and colourful-and, of course, out of the heat of the midday sun.

The main hall of the market, the high roof helping keep the heat of the day away

The main hall of the market, the high roof helping keep the heat of the day away

Take your pick of interesting alleyways with a myriad of trinkets

Take your pick of interesting alleyways with a myriad of trinkets

With no tuk-tuks or identifiable form of alternative transport, we grabbed a taxi and headed for Shwedagon Pagoda. Here we encountered our first ‘tourist tax’ when hit with an unexpected $8 fee for entry to the pagoda-at the time it seemed quite expensive, as Myanmar is in comparison to the rest of South East Asia, but it would prove to be worth every penny.

The imposing sight of the golden Shwedagon Pagoda

The imposing sight of the golden Shwedagon Pagoda

Golden Buddha under the Bodhi Tree, signifying the moment he reached enlightenment

Golden Buddha under the Bodhi Tree, signifying the moment he reached enlightenment

It's a pagoda!!!

It’s a pagoda!!!

Shwedagon Pagoda was constructed more than 2,600 years ago, making it the oldest Buddhist stupa in the world. It is situated on Singuttara Hill and towers above you at a height of 99 metres, overlooking the sprawling Yangon city below. It is the most sacred Buddhist pagoda in Myanmar, as it is believed to contain relics of the four previous Buddhas. The staff of Kakusandha, the water filter of Koṇāgamana, a piece of the robe of Kassapa, and eight strands of hair from the head of Gautama.
It was here that we would encounter something that we found quite funny, all of a sudden we found ourselves being the subjects of surreptitious photography. Locals would be walking by and engineering opportunities to get us in their photos, ‘check out the tourists’! It’s easy to forget that until 2012, Myanmar has been a difficult place for people to travel, and so tourists are still something of a novelty. Being a subject of so much intrigue in a heaving and populous city just seemed quite odd.
Our inflating ego’s aside, Shwedagon Pagoda proved to be absolutely breath-taking. A large complex of temples and pagodas centred on Shwedagon itself, as the sun set, the darkness drew in and the candles were lit-we both had to take a moment to come to terms with our surroundings-it really was quite overwhelming.

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Having been blown away by Shwedagon, our time in Yangon had drawn to the end and we readied ourselves for a night train to possibly the most famous of Myanmar images-the pagodas of Bagan. Our research had informed us that the train journey was a little bumpy, but well worth it for the views. Little did we know how ‘bumpy’ it would be….

Khmer New Year-Kampot Province

In the midst of our teaching tenure in Cambodia, we had the fortune to experience our third New Years’ celebrations of the year-and once again it proved to be quite the special experience. This chapter of our adventure was all about Heng, one of the student teachers.

To give you a little background, Heng has had some quite considerable ‘adolescent challenges’, and has made a quite remarkable turnaround in his life over the last 6 months. It is not for me to go into details with regards to his former issues, but what I can say is that he became something of an inspiration to us-and you could even regard him as a mentor to me, teaching me so many things about Cambodian survival skills. With Khmer New Year being the most important of celebrations in Cambodia, Heng had invited us to Kampot province to spend time with his family.
It is no exaggeration to highlight that the prospect of hosting two ‘barang’ at his family home over the Khmer New Year was a major coup for Heng, allowing him to demonstrate to his family and his peers his complete character reformation.

Mr Heng-a charismatic soul!

Mr Heng-a charismatic soul!

The school actually broke up for a week for the celebrations, so we planned to spend a few days with Heng’s family, as well as a few days revisiting Kampot town and the surrounding areas. Quite fantastically Jo had found a treehouse over the Kampong Bay River, adding to our excitement at the week ahead.

The morning for our departure for the school arrived, and found ourselves travelling to Phnom Penh on a local mini bus with the trainees-big mistake! Hot, cramped, uncomfortable and erratic-we should know by now that minibus is often the worst mode of transport-but then again it is the cheapest form of transport. Still, we eventually arrived in Phnom Penh in one piece, albeit a little grumpier than we would have liked-and we allowed ourselves a couple of days in the city before setting off to Kampot province. For the second leg of the journey, we reacquainted ourselves with the wonderful Giant Ibis bus service.
Expensive? Yes.
Slow? Yes.
Worth it? Oh yes!
We got the bus to drop us off in the village where Heng lives, approximately 20 miles from Kampot Town-prompting quizzical looks from the driver. As we disembarked the driver double checked if we were really sure this was where we wanted to be…This wasn’t where you usually find foreigners. And surely enough the locals mirrored the puzzled face of the driver as we collected our bags, and made our way towards Heng’s home. Heng’s family business is that of ice sellers-providing all local families and businesses with whatever quota of ice that they need for that day. A vital service, and over the coming hours we would appreciate just how much of a thriving business it proved to be. Each night they travel in a huge truck to collect blocks of ice from the ice factory, upon their return they keep the ice in an insulated shipping container outside the front of their home-and serve out various measures to everyone in the vicinity. As we arrived at his home, it was apparent that Heng had been working the night before, and had just managed to raise himself from his slumber!

Never has anyone looked more comfortable sleeping on ceramic tiles

Never has anyone looked more comfortable sleeping on ceramic tiles

So with great excitement Heng introduced us to his step mother, his little brother and soon enough his uncles and many ‘surrogate’ family members as well-Heng knew absolutely everyone, and they were all curious to come and meet his houseguests. Ironically the most important person that he wanted us to meet, his father, was stuck in Phnom Penh at a meeting, and so we would have to wait to make his acquaintance. In the mean time everyone was falling over themselves to make us feel welcome, and certainly we were drawing much attention from the locals.

As things were busy on the ice shop front, we took ourselves off for a walk around the village. Feeling adventurous, we ventured off from the main road and wondered down a dirt track, appreciating the modicum of shade provided by trees dotted along our path. We had a few hellos from the local children, passing one house a girl came out quite obviously confused by our presence-the immediate reaction being to ask whether we were lost? Where was our driver? Soon enough, once we had managed to communicate the fact that we were just having a wonder, we were invited in to meet her family and receive a glass of cold water, she spoke good English and told us she worked five days a week, and spent her weekends studying an accountancy course-and they were simply delighted to have us join them for some afternoon refreshment in the heat of the day.

The intrigue and generosity didn’t stop with this family, and as we made our way back towards Heng’s home we were called in by an older couple on the main road, they too were just chuffed to pieces to meet us. It transpired that they had spent 6 months in Alabama 30 years ago, and so were excited to be able to chat with some English speaking guests. Especially so given that their criticism of their time in the states was the lack of interaction between people, clearly not a problem in Cambodia! Again we were given refreshments and then the lady came out with a big bag of mangos for us as a gift.

On our return to the family home we met Heng’s grandmother, although we didn’t actually know it was her as there was no introduction! Quite simply she was an elegant, friendly, smiley lady who stroked and hugged Jo-again we just thought it was a random person being friendly!
Eventually it became apparent that she was related, and actually the matriarch of the family, and we were to be invited to spend the evening at her home to stay the night. As is the Cambodian way, we had eaten a number of meals before we arrived at the grandmothers house, but Heng’s grandmother insisted we eat with her as well, how can you refuse? Beautiful chicken and the standard rice, then nuts and corn and more mangos. To sleep we were offered the bed, but we could not take grandma’s bed much to the amusement of Heng’s uncles. So with our mat on the wooden floor and mosquito net set up we went off to sleep sharing a room with Heng, grandmother and two uncles. Some noise in the early hours signified the leaving to work of grandmother and uncles, apparently this was about 4am, which included a quick sweep before leaving. We woke up about 6 am and waited for the sleepy Heng to wake up about an hour later.
Order of business for the next day was actually a funeral ceremony for Heng’s 20 year old cousin, who had recently died in a road traffic accident. Our Britishness, made us a little awkward about attending such an event, but as we arrived we were greeted with the usual warmth of the Cambodian people and fed again, Cambodians are feeders… and apparently incredibly interested in how we, the barang, eat; yes we eat rice, not just bread and milk.

First up rice cakes wrapped in banana leaves….One of them was a long sausage shape, as I picked it up they said it was snake-Jo took great joy in relaying the image of my face-apparently it was an absolute picture, but upon unwrapping and eating it transpired to be yet another rice cake.
This whole time we had a crowd of people gathered around just watching us-it was quite surreal that we were a focal point of attention given the occasion.
Finally the funeral ceremony began, signified by the elders of the family walking three times around the funeral tent before settling in for funeral prayers and songs. At this point things became quite emotional, and Heng took us off to his uncles house to escape to the comfort of some hammocks, while the men gambled on a card game, all in the shadows of the beautiful mountainscape around us.

The funeral tent

The funeral tent

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After our introduction to the family, we headed off back to wonderful Kampot Town-a lazy French colonial town with plenty of ‘Western comforts’ for us to indulge in following our three rice meals a day regime at the school. French bakeries, gyoza restaurants, pizza, BEER….It was great to let our hair down and engage with civilisation once again. We arrived a couple of days prior to our booking at the treehouse, so we found ourselves a great little guesthouse with a pool table, generous Happy Hour (Kampot Kenny’s) and amusing resident locals to entertain and share stories with. Time passes easily in Kampot, and the couple of days at Kenny’s were gone in a heartbeat-now time to take residency in our treehouse!

Our home for the next 4 days, certainly a test for my fear of heights

Our home for the next 4 days, certainly a test for my fear of heights

As you can see the treehouse only had half a wall-but I suppose spectacular views made up for it!

As you can see the treehouse only had half a wall-but I suppose spectacular views made up for it!

And yes, that is a tree trunk going straight through our room!

And yes, that is a tree trunk going straight through our room!

We returned to Heng’s family to celebrate Khmer New Year, and to finally meet his father. He seemed absolutely made up in his sons transformation, and was delighted to be hosting us on an evening of celebration. We didn’t know what to expect when we arrived, but once again we were thrust into centre stage at the local Khmer New Years party. It’s really going to be strange returning to the UK and not living like some sort of minor celebrity, for this evening we were guests of honour at the top table to the New Years feast, and it would seem that we also had the responsibility of leading the dance. What followed was another wonderful evening of dance, drink and laughter-although I fear that much of the laughter was at us, rather than with us! Long into the evening we danced, with little choice in the matter, and eventually we returned to Heng’s to cosy down on the ceramic tile floor for a night of intermittent and uncomfortable slumber!

A local party for local people, we'll have no trouble here!

A local party for local people, we’ll have no trouble here!

Cambodians aren't what you would call 'shy' when it comes to having their photo taken!

Cambodians aren’t what you would call ‘shy’ when it comes to having their photo taken!


With our third New Years hangover under our belts, we returned to our treehouse for a few days recovery before having to get ourselves back to school. As so often on our travels, it is the most ‘untouristy’ experiences that stand out in the memory.

Teaching in Taream

And so it began, our teaching placement had finally started and we were now living and working in a school in a small Cambodian town called Taream. We were 5 hours from Phnom Penh, 3 hours from Siem Reap-and we were the only ‘barang’ in the village! (Barang being the Khmer word for French-but commonly used to describe all foreigners)

At this point it’s worth describing the school, the schedule, and the accommodation-I’ll try to cover this off now so as not to constantly repeat myself throughout the post:
Classrooms – Two classrooms upstairs, one downstairs, one outside the school at the front…Then later we built one at the back of the house next to the kitchen.
Lessons – The provincial Sols 24/7lessons at Sols from schools are additional schooling options, somewhere where children attend voluntarily to further their English language speech. During the day those of school age go to state school, then they attend Sols English lessons at 5-6PM and 6-7PM. After a couple of weeks we introduced advanced lessons for the trainee teachers throughout the day, but this was outside of the norm for the school-and was just a good use of what was a lot of free time. There were a number of additional lessons throughout the day for the younger local kids to get a head start on their English speaking development.
Sleeping – We had a private room at the front of the school, our ‘bed’ was a wooden platform with no mattress and no pillows. We hung our own mosquito net, had one power point and a single light bulb
The trainees slept in a dorm, on the floor. Never have a group of people made a hardwood floor look so comfortable. (We slept on the wooden platform ‘as is’ for just two nights before seeking out some form of cushioning to appease our cravings for comfort-we eventually found a thin duvet in Kampong Thom market and its modicum of padding sufficed!)
Bed time was around 9PM as we were up at 5.30AM every day, from day two we started kickboxing lessons at 6AM, this would continue throughout our time at the school.
Washing – there was a well at the front of the house which was the source for all of our water, as well as where we washed ourselves and our clothes.

The morning 'shower'

The morning ‘shower’


Eating – the trainees cooked all of the meals over a fire in a small kitchen at the back of the house. We had rice for breakfast, lunch and dinner-with various different sauces to flavour the rice. (My favourite was green mango, garlic, chilli and fish sauce…My ‘nemesis’ was the various assorted dried fish!) The garden was a plentiful source of much of what we ate-there were mango and coconut trees, a mushroom growing bed, and an assortment of unknown vegetable and fruits. The array of meals that the trainees managed to produce was staggering, and a huge relief following our experience at main centre.
Every meal would be eaten together, and no-one would begin their meal until everyone was sat at the table-it was wonderful.
Imagine cooking all of your meals here every day!

Imagine cooking all of your meals here every day!


Toilet – a squat toilet at the back of the school, not a place to be after dark!
Play – a well-kept garden at the side of the house for volleyball and football-when the heat of the sun wasn’t too searing!

Rewinding to our arrival, we were presented with our first task; the following day the school was putting on a concert and so they needed to build a stage-our inaugural lesson in Cambodian practicalities and building skills was upon us immediately. The construction was simple enough, a couple of felled palm trees, some wooden planks, a shed load of bamboo from the garden and some graft. Wanting to prove our usefulness we both threw ourselves into things, much to the amusement of the trainees that we had just met, before long the sweat was pouring off us as we struggled to adapt to the high noon heat of the Cambodian dry season.
It was a great way to break the ice with our living companions for the next two months (Veshna and his wife Chantan-the centre leaders, Heng, Meng Kong, Lida and Sopheak-the trainee teachers; and a number of ‘second home’ students who live at the school because their homes are too far away to travel each day) and before too long we had something that actually resembled a stage, although the finishing touches would take us well into the next day.

Sawing bamboo is a two man job!

Sawing bamboo is a two man job!

Jo using her stick fighting skills to good effect!

Jo using her stick fighting skills to good effect!

Bamboo prep-the 'wonder' construction material!

Bamboo prep-the ‘wonder’ construction material!

Introducing Heng-something of an inspirational character and someone who taught me a lot!

Introducing Heng-something of an inspirational character and someone who taught me a lot!

It was a great first couple of days, we didn’t do any teaching-but we were learning ourselves and relishing the opportunity to gain some practical skills in helping to prepare for whatever event they were planning. Little did we know what the evenings’ concert was to have in store. It turns out that they were expecting around 100 kids from the local area, and they would be hosting an extravaganza of entertainment from dance troupes, singers and drama productions, all to be followed by a bit of a party. If we were in any doubt as to their serious intent, it was soon dispelled when we saw the truck arrive with the sound system. That’s right-the sound system was MASSIVE, more like something you would have seen in a disused quarry in the 90’s at an illegal rave! Having had the security of our fillings tested during the sound check, we were soon informed that we were expected to be central to proceedings for the evening-Jo was to be Mistress of Ceremonies with Teacher Heng, and I was expected to sing….On stage, in front of loads of kids. Gobsmacked, gutted, petrified, terrified and nervous are all words that spring to mind-I don’t mind being centre of attention every now and again, but generally I do so under my own terms!

The completed stage, and the accompanying sound system!

The completed stage, and the accompanying sound system!

MC Heng and I having a 'shirt off'

MC Heng and I having a ‘shirt off’

Heng and Jo get the show started, I am skulking around nervous about my upcoming performance

Heng and Jo get the show started, I am skulking around nervous about my upcoming performance

It was amazing to see the confidence in these kids getting up on stage and performing

It was amazing to see the confidence in these kids getting up on stage and performing

Two of the 'second home' girls who lived at the school with us

Two of the ‘second home’ girls who lived at the school with us

The evening was a fantastic introduction for us, they partied and danced from six until about half nine(obviously all without any alcohol) and we did not get a moment to sit still. Unfortunately they didn’t have time for me to sing my song, I was due to close the show-but hey ho….I can’t say that I was too disappointed! After the performances finished they carried on with some booming basslines, people from all around the village came to join in and enjoy the festivities-as we would learn over and over again, Cambodians absolutely love a good knees up!

This was just the start of what would be a wonderful, but tough, couple of months at the school. The evening classes that we were teaching proved to be quite challenging, we don’t speak Khmer and the students were level 1 English students-so we had to get creative in our approach. (Especially when the senior teachers went to Phnom Penh for a meeting and didn’t return for over a week-without letting us know their plans!)
Often we would find ourselves having to teach in the dark because of the oh-so-regular power cuts.
The classes throughout the day weren’t without their challenges either-with the searing heat of the daytime sun, and the multitude of daily chores that had to be completed around our teaching timetable.
The kickboxing classes that we ran every day went down a storm with the lads. Meng Kong, Rathenor and Heng proving to be naturals-and their eagerness to learn was an absolute joy. When the ladies of the school did join us they too demonstrated a natural ability, our challenge with them was to overcome their shyness-which is much easier said than done.

We remained a constant source of intrigue and amusement for the locals-every day at the market they would ask the trainee teachers how we were doing and what were we eating. They found it hard to believe that we were eating rice for breakfast, lunch and dinner-they thought that we needed to have bread and milk in our diets! We couldn’t walk down the road without a cacophony of hellos, goodbyes, blown kisses and general wonderment from kids, adults and grandparents alike-for a couple of months we felt like we were celebrities!
One evening we were invited to go and see a wedding celebration, little did we know that this would cause so much of a fuss as people clamoured to dance with us; we featured alarmingly frequently in the viewfinder of the official wedding video-although I fear more for comic effect than anything else.

Over the weeks that we were there, as you would expect, we formed really close friendships with the trainees that we were living with-they taught us so much about Cambodian life. If you were to compare a 19 year old Cambodian with a 19 Year old from the UK, you would initially notice how young the Cambodians appear in respects to their emotional maturity-they are really playful, very shy, and have an air of innocence. However, when it comes to real life living, they soon show their maturity as they catch, kill, butcher and prepare your dinner; or they build a table that seats 16 people out of bamboo; or they just lower themselves into the well to dig it out because it’s gone dry and there is no available water. Their resourcefulness and adaptability was astounding, and displayed a very different type of maturity-one which exceeds mine.

It was an absolute privilege to live with these guys, and there are so many stories that we have to share that this blog post could go on and on and on.
I fear that would bore somewhat-so instead I shall share a few annotated photos-after all each one is worth a thousand words!

Perren-one of the second home students-displaying his grasp of English

Perren-one of the second home students-displaying his grasp of English

Transport to and from the school wasn't exactly 'conventional'...Often just the back of a truck!

Transport to and from the school wasn’t exactly ‘conventional’…Often just the back of a truck!

Our next door neighbour was a 4 year old football genius, he would play at the school on his own from 6AM every day

Our next door neighbour was a 4 year old football genius, he would play at the school on his own from 6AM every day

From left to right: Sopheak, Lida, Jo and Heng

From left to right: Sopheak, Lida, Jo and Heng

One of our other 'housemates'

One of our other ‘housemates’

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Watching the football match, the crowd was gripped!!!

Watching the football match, the crowd was gripped!!!

The local hairdressers...Not I had any need to pay a visit!

The local hairdressers…Not I had any need to pay a visit!

The always smiling Rathenor

The always smiling Rathenor

Examples of my new found handiness-new wall and bamboo table!

Examples of my new found handiness-new wall and bamboo table!

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So many sunsets-so many memories

So many sunsets-so many memories

Perren, Anna, Lisa and Uwe

Perren, Anna, Lisa and Uwe

The school!

The school!

One day I mentioned how it would be nice to have a fire pit-that evening they organised one!

One day I mentioned how it would be nice to have a fire pit-that evening they organised one!

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If this were 'heat cam' EVERYTHING would be red!

If this were ‘heat cam’ EVERYTHING would be red!

See these ants in the mango tree?! These ants are the ones that you put in a mango salad....

See these ants in the mango tree?! These ants are the ones that you put in a mango salad….

Big pineapple?

Big pineapple?

One of the classes hard at work!

One of the classes hard at work!

The 6-7 classes always had to contend with their lessons finishing in the dark!

The 6-7 classes always had to contend with their lessons finishing in the dark!

Man on a bike, great big engine-what is it for?

Man on a bike, great big engine-what is it for?

Oh, so you just put some rice and sugar in it....Why?

Oh, so you just put some rice and sugar in it….Why?

...Because that's how you make rice cakes!!! Of course!

…Because that’s how you make rice cakes!!! Of course!

Music, cheering, people waiting on the roadside with offerings and water....Can only mean one thing...

Music, cheering, people waiting on the roadside with offerings and water….Can only mean one thing…

The monks are coming and they're blessing the new road....As well as those who wish to be blessed!

The monks are coming and they’re blessing the new road….As well as those who wish to be blessed!

The first rain of the rainy season-a joyous football moment

The first rain of the rainy season-a joyous football moment

After the unforgiving heat of the previous weeks-everyone is overjoyed at the arrival of the rains

After the unforgiving heat of the previous weeks-everyone is overjoyed at the arrival of the rains

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On our final evening everyone grouped together to present a banquet in the garden, an opportunity for us to sit together and feast one last time. Everyone contributed something to the final meal, the general attitude of sharing and caring is profoundly humbling-these are people who have comparatively little, but give so much. Considering that we went to Taream to be teachers, it seems ironic that we came away having learned a huge amount from these couple of months, I hope that the guys we were with learned something too-certainly we will not be forgetting our most magical of times in Cambodia anytime soon.

And so the sun sets on our time in Taream

And so the sun sets on our time in Taream

A bewildering beginning…Teaching in Cambodia

Spoiler alert: This post is a bit of a whinge/moan-not everything is fantastic and wonderful.

It was with a certain level of excitement and nervousness that the next chapter of our adventure began-now we would be teaching English for six weeks in a Cambodian province. As we arrived at the main centre in Phnom Penh, I have to admit that I was particularly apprehensive about how I would fare given my lack of experience.

Our experience at main centre didn’t do much to reassure us about expectations moving forward over the following six weeks. The management team seemed completely disorganised when it came to welcoming in volunteers to the organisation, and there was no clear plan for training, induction or even our final teaching destination. The next three days proved to be difficult, we had arrived at a time when the team at Sols 24/7 were fasting, and as such our days would start at 5.30AM with breakfast, and then we would not eat again until the evening. This wouldn’t be so bad if it were not for the fact that the food was awful, consisting of rice and a green leaf soup, and one other dish usually consisting of elements of chicken that we wouldn’t usually eat…Admittedly you have to take into consideration that the food was prepared by the students, and they have to cook for 300 people on an extremely low budget. Part of the impressive program of ‘life skills’ that are taught throughout the program. In addition to these nutritional challenges, we were getting eaten alive by mosquitos and it was HOT!

With no clear plan about our daily activity, we ended up joining a class and following their daily lesson plan-this proved to be quite reassuring, with some extremely bright and engaging young adults displaying a refreshing eagerness to learn. They aim for students to be speaking English after just three months here, and many of them were super keen to get some practice in with some native speakers while they had the opportunity. They even managed to get us both singing for our respective classes-I’m not sure how many times they will hear the Welsh national anthem again, but I can pretty much guarantee that they won’t hear it sung like I did again! As well as the enthusiasm of the students, the teachers that we met were wonderful, many of whom are exchange teachers from Sols organisations in other countries. All of the teachers in the Sols program get the opportunity to travel with the schools and gain international experience, both Jo and I were shadowing teachers from East Timor.

On our second day we were informed that they had found a school for us-we would be heading to the province of Kampong Thom the following morning. Again at this point the lack of information or support was a little concerning, no-one really knew what time we would be leaving how, long it would take us to get there, how many students there were, or any other pertinent information about what lay ahead….My excitement and optimism was waning, and I was concerned about what lay ahead-but as we have discovered so often on our travels, sometimes you just have to let things play themselves out. And so we did, the next morning we got up, tackled our breakfast and patiently waited for our exit from main centre to materialise. Eventually we were ushered into a car, and our next jaunt into the unknown was upon us. Little did we know that the car was just taking us to the local bus stop, and we were turfed out onto the street with some pretty vague directions about making it to the province, where we would be welcomed by our host and everything would become clear. We were to take the Phnom Penh to Siem Reap bus, but we needed to negotiate with the bus driver to get him to drop us off in Prey Pros; at that point we would call the provincial teacher who would come and meet us and take us to the school-simple!

As it turns out, not really. Our first bus broke down around an hour into the journey, and so we just sat on the side of the road awaiting a replacement bus-finally this arrived and we settled in for the rest of the journey- this bus only took us to another rest stop where we would once again be changing buses! Eventually, after 6 hours, we were ushered off the third bus in our trilogy, we had finally made it…..Only that we hadn’t, the bus driver had turned us out at Kampong Thom town-and upon my appeals that we were going to Prey Pros we were just waved away with a grunt, our bags left on the street and the bus rattled off into the distance….ARGH! Feeling somewhat bemused, we booked ourselves into a guesthouse and resigned ourselves to completing the journey the following day.

A new dawn, a new day and a fresh outlook on our situation, we were waiting for the main teacher, a guy called Veshna, to come and pick us up and to take us to the school where we would be staying. Standing outside the front of the guesthouse and I had my eyes peeled for Veshna and his car…..Of course he eventually turned up on a battered old scooter, the logistics of how we would be getting back to the school all of a sudden becoming quite perplexing. We don’t have a lot of luggage, but two hefty rucksacks, two day packs, the two of us, one teacher and once scooter do not exactly equate! No problems, we managed to get another motorbike taxi and soon found ourselves having to balance precariously on the back with our rucksacks overhanging the back wheels. 20 minutes later and we were at what would be our home for the next couple of months….And what would turn out to be one of the most fulfilling times of our travels.

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Phnom Penh again, ready to teach in Cambodia

We left Nha Trang by train and made our way back to Ho Chi Minh, a journey that looked destined not to happen as our original train had crashed and a number of people had been killed-not the greatest thing to find out when you arrive at the train station! During the chaos, we bumped into a couple and their son whom we had met during our final days diving, they had very recently relocated to Ho Chi Minh from Australia and had hit Nha Trang for a few days before their work was due to begin. It’s always great to share times of uncertainty with others, and eventually we managed to negotiate ourselves onto a night train later that day. The journey itself turned out to be much longer than expected, but with the aid of engaging company the time passed painlessly and soon we staggered bleary eyed into Ho Chi Minh once again. Given the extended train journey and the uncertainty in times of arrival, we decided to stay the night in Ho Chi Minh again before catching the bus to Phnom Penh-and so we returned to the Blue River Hotel where we had spent so much time over the last six weeks.

Catching the bus the next day and we were overjoyed to be greeted by a disco bus, chandeliers included-it seemed only right that we would be leaving Vietnam in such a beast! It was the very definition of kitsch, and with the complementary Vietnamese egg pastries we settled in to the relatively short journey of 6 hours to Cambodia.

Chandeliers?!?! Of course!

Chandeliers?!?! Of course!

Egg pastries, water and a Danish...Simple pleasures!

Egg pastries, water and a Danish…Simple pleasures!

No grumbles here, the journey went absolutely fine, the only amusement coming at the border crossing where you get harried and hurried along with no idea about what’s going on. Various people taking your passport and then seemingly passing it around to anyone in a uniform to check-quite confusing, but as with pretty much every travel experience that we’ve had-it all worked out in the end. By now even my usual travel anxieties have been numbed, not entirely, but I am noticeably more relaxed than I was before our adventure.

Prior to leaving for South East Asia, both Jo and I completed an online TEFL qualification-with a view to finding volunteer work to help us extend our time here, while not spending too much money, and getting some invaluable experience for future opportunities. Not long after leaving Cambodia in November we had done just that-we secured ourselves a volunteer role with an organisation called SOLS 24/7.

The organisation is pretty impressive, you just have to take some time to look at their website and you will see that they have schools across Malaysia, East Timor, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. Their provincial program focuses on teaching English to anyone, no matter your age or financial situation-their belief is that a basic grasp of English should be available to everyone. Furthermore, at their main centres they offer opportunities to study in their ‘Science of Life Studies’ program, offering a comprehensive life and business skills course, at a minimal cost, to people who want to improve their future prospects. Indeed at the main centre in Phnom Penh it is claimed that they have a 100% success rate in their students getting employment on the day that they graduate. That’s a pretty impressive statistic, bearing in mind that, at the time of writing, there were approximately 300 students studying there.

The organisation was founded by a Malaysian gent referred to by everyone as ‘Big Teacher’, he writes and develops all of the courses that they teach. At the core of their programs is their English language teaching system, with which they look to get students speaking English within three months. It is a very simple concept based on teaching a number of formulas, system words and a limited vocabulary. Once the students have grasped the basics, it is up to them to build out their repertoire.
We didn’t get to meet ‘Big Teacher’, however he is certainly held in high regard by everyone who knew him, and he was recently one of ten candidates in contention for the Nobel Prize for teaching.

The main centre for Sols 24/7 in Cambodia is based just outside the centre of Phnom Penh, so we afforded ourselves a weekend in the capital before getting down to the serious business of teaching English for the first time. It was great to return to the Cambodian capital, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but we have grown extremely fond of it and were looking forward to negotiating the frenetic and unforgiving streets once again. We took the chance to explore even further, and soon found an area that was lined with funky street cafes and bars, as well as a couple of nearby bakeries-result!

While scanning the local papers in one of the afore mentioned bakeries, we came across a review for a local arts festival being advertised in the Lakeside area of the city. For those of you that don’t know, there is no lake in Phnom Penh anymore, around five years ago the government sold the land for development and drained the lake-ergo the popular tourist hub found itself relocated to riverside, and the area became something of a forgotten jewel of the city. The guesthouses here are cheap and cheerful, the area has something of a rough reputation, but based on our experience it is a lovely place to base yourself while in Phnom Penh. The discovery of this arts festival was something of a hurrah moment, so we eagerly went along to see how the locals were looking to boost its popularity once again. What we discovered was an awesome street festival with various circus performers, graffiti artists and upcoming local music and dance groups-it was superb. The atmosphere was great, a real community spirit working together to dispel the myths that have sprouted up about the area. It felt like good things were happening in Phnom Penh, and we couldn’t be happier about it!
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Having had a few days of socialising and ‘freedom’, now it was our turn to try and do something constructive, and to find out whether we had the necessary skills to engage with students looking to study the English language.

Rainbow Diving…Our return to Nha Trang

Having completed a try dive with Rainbow Divers, we had made the decision to invest some of our budget in attempting our PADI Open Water Diving qualification. It’s quite a considerable amount of money when you are budgeting for ongoing travel, but the chance to get this under our belts with a team that we were familiar with, and in excellent diving conditions was just too good an opportunity to pass up.

So, with considerable excitement, we left Cat Ba and returned to Nha Trang.
It’s a nice feeling to return to places, to arrive without apprehension and having a little more understanding of where you are going, how much a taxi should cost-and where to get the best food! We even returned to the same hotel, where we were greeted with recognition and an appreciation of our return business-so far so good.
We made our way straight to Crazy Kims, the bar from which Rainbow Divers operated. It was clear that the ‘season’ was in full swing now-the dive centre was a hive of activity with many sunburnt smiling faces returning from their day on the boat.
We got ourselves booked in for our PADI course, and discovered that we would be taught by the instructor that had taken us for our try dives-a Dutch guy called Quentin. This was quite the result, we had both felt extremely comfortable with him on our initial dives, and he had done wonders to reassure Jo of any apprehension left over from her previous diving experiences.
Just to give you the background, Jo had started a PADI course in New Zealand a number of years back, and had a bad experience where she ended up panicking in the water-so not only was this the task of learning the necessary skills, Jo would also be trying to overcome some considerable fear.

The course would be over four days-the first day in the classroom doing all of the theory and written exams; day two we would be going to the nearby navy diving pool for instruction in various underwater techniques; then the final two mornings we would be out on the boat doing our four open water dives-very exciting indeed.

Day one in the pool and all was well-I won’t bore you with all the techniques that you cover, there is loads of information around on the internet if you’re interested-I would suggest further reading on the PADI website.
All was well, that is until we reached the final test-the full mask removal. This is something which proves to be a common difficulty for many people who do these courses, and unfortunately it was something that Jo was struggling with. Every other technique had been completed with no issue, but when it came to removing the mask Jo just couldn’t stop herself from inhaling water, and rising to the surface in a minor panic. It was gut wrenching, Quentin regretfully informed us that Jo would not be able to dive unless she got this skill nailed, but the more she tried the more frustrating it proved.
Feeling something of a heavy heart, we returned to the hotel to blast the internet to find others that struggled with the same thing-and to hopefully find some way to solve the issue. It was with some reassurance that we discovered how common an issue it was-although no simple answers, there were a few suggestions which seemed to be worth thinking about when we would be getting out on the boat the next morning.

And so we were off, our inaugural dive trip!

And so we were off, our inaugural dive trip!

First dive site, Madonna Rock...Named so because apparently they resemble a part of Madonna's anatomy....

First dive site, Madonna Rock…Named so because apparently they resemble a part of Madonna’s anatomy….

Arriving at our first dive site and we had prepped our kit and done our pre dive checks, it was time to get into the water. As we went to make our first descent, Jo’s demons returned and she just could not go ahead with the dive. She was gutted, understandably, and returned to the boat with the option of doing some snorkelling while we continued with the course. It was horrible thinking of Jo as I continued down to the dive site, I knew that she would be upset and frustrated and I wanted to get back on deck-but obviously that wasn’t an option. 20m visibility and a cacophony of colours invading my mask, the coral and fish giving me some other worldly vista…but only for brief moments. You see, I am still always aware of the fear, the fear that I am underwater and I need to concentrate on doing all that I have been instructed to do. Every now and again, I would catch glimpses of this fantastical environment, but for the most part I was consumed with self awareness and, indeed, self preservation…….And Quentin, hand signals giving me instruction, and his backside leading the way.
The first dive complete and we returned to the boat to set sail for our next dive site-Jo was in surprisingly good spirits and being a lot more positive than I would have been…Whether that was a direct result of cake consumption or not I’m not sure, but she was handling things brilliantly. At the second site I continued my course and Jo got involved with some snorkelling, the excellent visibility treating Jo to more of a coral colour show than I managed to muster-with my blinkered concentration only allowing me glimpses of the world around me!

On our return journey Quentin came to debrief us and seemed resigned to finishing Jo’s course with a program of snorkelling for the next day-this was a desperately disappointing conversation to close the morning off. Having returned to shore and gotten back to our hotel, we decided to approach Rainbow Divers and ask them to get Jo back in the Navy pool to get her skills finalised on the last day. Given that we had paid for the PADI course, an afternoon of snorkelling wouldn’t be enough to get out of it, and getting over the hurdle of the face mask removal would obviously be of more benefit. Quentin agreed to help us out and take Jo back to the pool for a one to one session the next day-hopefully nailing all the necessary skills. Somewhat happier with the situation, we ate and went to hit the sack early ready for the final day in the water. Lo and behold when we got back to the hotel there was a phone call from Quentin, the following day wouldn’t be possible to take Jo to the pool-so he wanted her to come out on the boat again and we would find ‘pool like conditions’ where Jo could try the skills once again. On the one hand it was great that Jo would be out on the boat with me again, on the other it added a certain amount of uncertainty back into the equation. Little did we know that this twist of fate would prove to be the absolute best thing that could have happened!

Out on the boat for the final time and my penultimate dive served to tick the final boxes on the skills that I needed to demonstrate to pass my PADI qualification-I had done it, just one ‘fun dive’ left where I would be ‘just diving’ for the first time.

Quentin giving me the international approval sign of a high five!

Quentin giving me the international approval sign of a high five!

PADI Jones, ready for action!

PADI Jones, ready for action!

Now it was time for Jo to get back in the water and find a spot to try and get the mask removal nailed. As Quentin and Jo swam a bit further towards shore, I took the opportunity to do some snorkelling myself while I waited. Jo seemed to be in the water for an absolute age, by this time I had returned to deck and had immersed myself in a program of coffee drinking and cake eating! Soon enough there was movement at the back of the boat and I made my way to meet Jo as she returned to deck. Broad smiles on their faces seemed to be a good indicator, not only had Jo managed to nail the full mask removal first time (plus another two times!), but Quentin had also gotten her to complete the rest of the required skills. Basically Jo completely nailed it! Quite obviously delighted, Quentin then informed us that he would be more than happy for Jo to join us on our final dive. She would not take away the final PADI accreditation, but she would only have to complete three more open water dives to finish the course. It seemed a far cry from the disappointment of the previous day, and taking to the waters together for the final dive was a superb way to finish our time here.

RESULT!!!!!

RESULT!!!!!

Pretty darn happy with the way things turned out!

Pretty darn happy with the way things turned out!

Dive buddies!

Dive buddies!

Summarising our experience, Rainbow Divers were excellent and the diving in Nha Trang was wonderful. Quentin deserves special recognition for his patience and effort-we are now both proud owners of dive log books, and we are looking forward to finding somewhere else in the world to get Jo’s final three dives ticked off.

This would also be our final act in Vietnam, for now we return to Cambodia, and a six week volunteer teaching post in a Cambodian province.