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.

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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.

So long Cambodia, Bangkok bound once again

Originally our plan had been to travel up through Vietnam after Cambodia, but Jo needed to get some hospital treatment in Bangkok and so we organised for appointments at the world renowned Bumrungrad hospital-more on that later. With our 60 day visa in hand (courtesy of Lucky Lucky Motorcycle shop), time for our return to the Thailand via Battambang, the second largest city in Cambodia. Upon arriving you certainly don’t get the feeling that you’re in a big city, it’s a far cry from Phnom Penh, and has the atmosphere of a large town rather than a city-much akin to Kampot where we had been previously.

With only a couple of nights here as a stop gap, there isn’t too much to mention apart from our visit to the Battambang Circus-Phare Ponleu Selpak, a NGO which gives youths from deprived backgrounds the opportunity to learn circus skills very much in the ‘Cirque De Soleil’ style of performance. It is rated as the one attraction you have to see in Battambang, and so we were delighted to find out that there was a performance on the eve of our arrival. The performance was from those who were studying at the school, and it was absolutely brilliant-well worth a ‘big up’!

Amazing feats of balance....

Amazing feats of balance….

...With increasing difficulty

…With increasing difficulty

Strength and power...

Strength and power…

...Again with fantastic balance

…Again with fantastic balance

And then the aerial skills, which cam thick and fast

And then the aerial skills, which came thick and fast

Fantastic performances from some very engaging young acrobats!

Fantastic performances from some very engaging young acrobats!

So with not too much to report from the rest of our time in Battambang, we ate well and enjoyed watching some Taekwondo on the riverside…We once again boarded the bus to Poipet and the ‘Wild West’ border-time to try out the visas!
Fortunately, we were through the border with no problems, Lucky Lucky proved true to their name and we we granted a stay of 60 days in Thailand-PHEW!

Back in Thailand, back to a rail service-the five hour journey seemed much easier to cope with on our return-I think that you just get used to the travelling after a few trips. Getting back into Bangkok and first frustrations raise their heads at the train station-basically the taxis in Bangkok are extremely cheap, as long as you get them on the meter. Problem is, if you look like you need a taxi, or if you’re going to an area that the taxi driver doesn’t fancy-they either refuse to put you on a meter and quote you a ridiculous cost, or they just point blank refuse to take you! At the end of a hefty day of travelling, my patience is pretty short and my frustrations begin to show as driver after driver refuse our fare. One driver said that he would take us, but it would be 300 baht (about £6), but I wasn’t having it-I was determined to get in a metered taxi. It took about ten minutes to finally find a driver that would take us on the meter-total cost for the journey…78 baht (around £1.50), a small victory admittedly, but extremely satisfying! It’s a very strange situation when you get taxi drivers just refusing your business, definitely something that I couldn’t get my head around.

The reason for our return to Bangkok was that, before we left Blighty, we found out that Jo needed a minor operation, and that the recovery period for the op would be four weeks, during which time you’re not allowed to fly. We really didn’t want to delay our adventure and effectively tread water in the UK; especially seeing as we had left our flat and given up our jobs already, so we made the tough decision to get the operation done in Bangkok. Fortunately Bangkok boasts some of the best international healthcare facilities in the world, and the hospital that we were to be going to, Bumrungrad International, actually features as one of the top ten hospitals in the world for international patients. They treat 1.1 million patients each year, with over 520,000 of those coming from outside of Thailand. I cannot stress how much of a different world it is going to this hospital in comparison to healthcare in the UK. In Bangkok it is BIG BUSINESS, and this is evident as soon as you enter the building. Like something of a cross between a five star hotel, and a major international airport, it really is quite incredible! There are restaurants, coffee shops, and (to our disgust) a McDonalds…even a quite extensive gym, all within the confines of the hospital. What is quite bizarre is the way that things are processed with respect to your treatment-at the first appointment Jo met with the surgeon to discuss the procedure, and the was promptly put through a number of tests including a chest x-ray and ECG before they would even agree to operate. At the end of the evaluation we were given the go-ahead for the operation, and it could be performed within the next two days. It’s at this point that you’re given a break down of the various tests and consultations that you’ve had throughout the day-and then you need to go to the cashier (of which there are loads dotted around the place), and settle the bill for the costs incurred thus far. It really is an extremely business-like and efficient way of ‘getting things sorted’.
So, two days after the initial consultation and we were arriving back at the hospital for Jo to go into surgery, it was to be performed under general anaesthetic and so we were both, understandably, apprehensive about having this done so far from home. This element certainly was not helped at all by the fact that once we got to the reception, we were promptly told that I was not allowed to wait with her, and that she was to go through to the theatre preparation area immediately….I just had to go back to our hotel and wait for the hospital to call! As I’m sure you can imagine, something of an emotional goodbye and I was left to stew for a few hours waiting on news from the hospital, as Jo had to face the surgery preparation alone. Thankfully everything went without any problems and 8 hours after leaving Jo at the reception I was overjoyed to be meeting her and getting escorted back to the hotel together….After passing by the cashiers office obviously!

Now just four weeks of relaxing to plan to make sure that there is a full and speedy recovery-so now to get out of the craziness that is Bangkok and find something a little more relaxing-next stop the ancient city of Ayutthaya.

From one paradise to another, Ganesha @ Kampot…Then our return to Phnom Penh

It’s a pretty tall order to follow the serenity of Koh Rong Samloem, but next on our route round Cambodia was Kampot-officially classed as a city and a regional capital, but really it just fells like a large town.
It’s quite an odd introduction to the city as the bus makes its way in, much of the architecture is largely of French origin and it gives an impression of former affluence, however the city has definitely tired somewhat over the years-and the region suffered during the Khmer Rouge reign. Something of a monument to this period, and one of the main reference points for the town, is the old bridge that was partially bombed during the war and repaired with something of a mish mash of materials. Still, the city very much thrives on it’s industry, and is world famed for production of Kampot Pepper. Kampot is also the nearest major town to the seaside resort of Kep-which has the most amazing fresh crab market-and when combined with the Kampot Pepper you have a truly delicious dish!

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You can definitely picture how the buildings once looked, but many now are in  need of serious renovation

You can definitely picture how the buildings once looked, but many now are in need of serious renovation

The town very much revolves around the river-and at night you can take a sunset 'cruise' on this beauty!

The town very much revolves around the river-and at night you can take a sunset ‘cruise’ on this beauty!

When in Kep....

When in Kep….

All the fun of the fish market!

All the fun of the fish market!

Seriously, you eat crab here and it's FRESH!

Seriously, you eat crab here and it’s FRESH!

"Freeeesh fish, get you're fresh fish 'ere" (although obviously in Cambodian!)

“Freeeesh fish, get you’re fresh fish ‘ere” (although obviously in Cambodian!)

View from lunch table-you can actually watch them get the ingredients from the sea!

View from lunch table-you can actually watch them get the ingredients from the sea!

Trusty steed for exploring the area!

Trusty steed for exploring the area!

The guesthouse that we stayed at in Kampot was a little outside of the centre, and to be honest with you I was a little wary of what we were getting ourselves into on the tuk tuk journey there. Basically we left the smooth roads of the city and headed onto the dirt tracks, from the dirt tracks we turned onto even rougher mud pathways, littered with massive pot holes and at some points it seemed that we were just driving through peoples homes! As the journey progressed my apprehension grew-thinking that we were really going to find ourselves sleeping in a barn with some cattle….But then we arrived, Ganesha Guesthouse, truly an absolutely gorgeous gem in the middle of acres of rice fields. If you ever find yourself going to Kampot-go here: http://www.ganesharesort.com/bar-restaurant/
The food was absolutely superb with all ingredients coming from the immediate vicinity or the garden, the setting was gorgeous with it’s very own ox-bow lake, mangrove forest and gardens that lit up with fireflies at night, and the accommodation options are fantastic-we stayed in the main house and it was brill!

As we were out of the city somewhat, the easiest way to explore was to hire a scooter and hit the roads. Being something of a backwater-the roads proved to be easy enough to navigate, and we set off to explore Kep, the Kampot pepper farms and Bokor National park.

Female Buddha on the ascent of Bokor National Park

Female Buddha on the ascent of Bokor National Park

Abandoned Casino at the top of the mountain after is was attacked by the Khmer Rouge

Abandoned Casino at the top of the mountain after is was attacked by the Khmer Rouge

View from the Casino at the top of Bokor

View from the Casino at the top of Bokor

Popokvil Waterfall

Popokvil Waterfall

The Kampot province coast

The Kampot province coast

Feeling fully recharged and ready for the next step-Phnom Penh was once again our destination. Definitely a huge change from the R&R of Koh Ron Samloem and Kampot, but we needed to head back to get our Thai visa sorted.
As expected the bus journey was relatively straight forward and we one again found ourselves in the heaving heart of the capital city. We had arranged for our superstar of a tuk tuk driver and guide to meet us from the journey, and so it was great to arrive to a smile and a hug from a familiar face.
On our return to Phnom Penh we ‘lived it up’ a bit and stayed in a hotel, and just did everything that we could to get our visas as fast as possible. This actually included circumnavigating the Thai embassy-as when we researched the process for obtaining a 60 day visa we found many reviews saying how difficult it is to deal with the Thai embassy in Phnom Penh, and that it would take a minimum of four days if we were to do it ourselves. So, what do you do? Well-you go to Lucky Lucky Motorbike Shop, who will get the visa sorted for you in two days, obviously!!! Yes that’s right against all of your better instincts, we travelled to Lucky Lucky and left our passports with them to get our visas, and two days later-there we were, proud owners of 60 day passes for travel in Thailand….Well, at least we hoped we were, obviously we would find out for sure when we got to the border!!

Living it up a bit second time round in Phnom Penh :-)

Living it up a bit second time round in Phnom Penh 🙂

Rooftop cocktails you say?!

Rooftop cocktails you say?!

Food porn

Food porn

Phnom Penh Central Market

Phnom Penh Central Market

Phnom Penh Russian Market food section!

Phnom Penh Russian Market food section!

Love a good hanging chair me!

Love a good hanging chair me!

Cambodia-Vietnam Friendship Monument

Cambodia-Vietnam Friendship Monument

Love a good monument in Phnom Penh

Love a good monument in Phnom Penh

Rush hour

Rush hour

To the beach-Sihanoukville & Koh Rong Samloem

Having tackled the madness of Bangkok, wowed ourselves with the wonder of Siam Reap & Angkor, and immersed ourselves in the history of Phnom Penh, we both felt the need to get involved in some serious R&R!
Our research had lead us to Sihanoukville, the most popular coastal destination for tourists in Cambodia. The area boasts a number of beaches, and as with everywhere else in Cambodia the accommodation was extremely affordable! However, one evening in Phnom Penh we met a couple who were also heading to Sihanoukville, but they were actually just using it as a stop gap before they set sail to one of the islands off the coast. They recommended an island called Koh Rong, Cambodia’s largest island and, apparently, paradise! From their descriptions and a little bit of research we were sold, onwards to Sihanoukville before, hopefully, finding our own little slice of island paradise.

Again the preferred mode of transport is a bus, and 6 hours later we found ourselves at the familiar stage of batting off tuk tuk drivers while trying to unload our baggage from the bus. Here things were slightly different, apparently all of the drivers in Sihanoukville have made a pact and they charge a flat $5 fee from the bus station into the town-rather overpriced for the region, but there simply was no haggling.
It did come as some surprise when the driver that we did choose lead us to a car-honestly travelling in a car is something that felt quite alien after the last couple of weeks of various motorbike based transport or buses. Still, after a long bus journey we weren’t complaining and we set off for our guesthouse in the town, at this stage you get the usual sales patter from the driver-everyone gets a commission for everything over here.

Upon arriving at the guesthouse we were happy to find that it was very nice-free pool, free Wi-Fi, nice restaurant and fantastic beetroot smoothies! Settled and fed, we set off to try and find some accommodation for Koh Rong. It’s at this point that once again our plans changed, it would seem that Koh Rong is no longer the semi-deserted paradise that it once was, while it is still supposed to be gorgeous, it became apparent that Koh Rong is now a party island, and the desired R&R sanctuary may not be found here. Instead we were directed towards Koh Rong Samloem, an island which is pretty much next to Koh Rong, however with only a few guesthouses on the entire island it seemed to be the only choice for our retreat. Accommodation booked, hi speed ferry tickets bought, it was just down to us to pack our stuff again and get ready for our island adventure.

We ended up staying in a jungle hut about 20 meters from our own private beach, with no hot water, no wifi, no phone signal and electricity only between the hours of 6-11PM…..We’d found it, bliss!!!
Needless to say there isn’t much more to say about our four days here-I’ll just share some photos instead 🙂

That's right....It's OUR beach!

That’s right….It’s OUR beach!

Niiiiiiiice view from the reception

Niiiiiiiice view from the reception

A demonstration of success in adversity!

A demonstration of success in adversity!

Dusk approaches!

Dusk approaches!

Snorkelling action shot!

Snorkelling action shot!

....Coral

….Coral

Bit more underwater SHRUBBERY!

Bit more underwater SHRUBBERY!

Coral?

Coral?

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This is our mate Hermon, a fine example of some of the native life :-)

This is our mate Hermon, a fine example of some of the native life 🙂

Ahhhhh the lovely gecko, mosquito killer!!! :-)

Ahhhhh the lovely gecko, mosquito killer!!! 🙂

Seriously, this place was gorgeous!

Seriously, this place was gorgeous!

Duuuuuuh duh duh duh, duh duh,  duh duh,  Hammocktime!

Duuuuuuh duh duh duh,
duh duh,
duh duh,
Hammocktime!

It would seem that tourism is on the up here though, with more developments on the island planned and the local village being somewhat impacted by the current influx of divers, it remains to be seen how long Koh Rong Samloem will stay as it is. There are initiatives which are being put in place to protect the coastline, so hopefully these will prove effective and the island will offer the same sanctuary to others in the future!

During our time on the island we had become friends with the team of diving instructors that had arrived the day after us. They were a group of guys from a diving school in Cyprus, and were going to be running the school on the island for the next four months. What a life, following the sun and working in amazing places around the world!
On leaving the island and setting off for Sihanoukville again, the guys from the diving school were also taking a trip to the mainland to get some supplies and go out for some beachside local seafood, so we organised to meet up with them so they could show us the local way of dining out! Queue the most amazing feast of crab, tom yam, clams and prawns on the beachfront with the locals-seriously the best seafood of the trip so far. If I’m to be honest I probably wouldn’t have eaten at the venue if it weren’t for the guidance of our new friends, it was all a bit confusing, daunting and a little bit crazy-but it was absolutely delicious! The evening continued with something of an over-indulgence on cocktails and laughter, a fantastic end to our Cambodian beach and island chapter!