From the beach of El Quisco to the Atacama Desert

Having spent a few days in Valparaiso, and with a couple of weeks teaching for the English Opens Doors program approaching, we decided to get some much needed coastal time under our belts. Over the entirety of our travels, the surprising thing is that we haven’t seen more of the sea-so we headed to the Chilean coast and  El Quisco. Most famous for being home to another one of Pablo Neruda’s haunts, Isla Negra, El Quisco proved to be the perfect tonic to the concrete jungle that is Valpo, a few stunning sunsets perfect to massage the soul and move us forward to our next volunteer placement. Aimless meandering up and down the stunning coastline certainly didn’t disappoint, and we even managed to happen across a Pablo Neruda artistic reserve on the cliff tops-the kind of place that you would never find if you were actively looking for it!  Walking around this hidden gem you find a number of sculptures hidden amongst the foliage, most impressive were the eerie stone faces that look over the shores, listening to the waves crashing on the rocks far below-it’s easy to understand how an artist would use this place as a source of inspiration: 

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Stunning scenery, great seafood, a perfect little cabana just 5 minutes walk from the beach-you couldn’t really ask for much more-apart for time! Alas that wasn’t something that we could afford ourselves, and in the blink of an eye our lazy couple of days were over, and we were headed back to Santiago once again-over the following two weeks we would be teaching assistants for the English Opens Doors Summer Camps. Nothing too taxing, we would be working with Chilean teachers delivering a number of activities for students who had enrolled in a free summer English language program- they’re run over the whole of Chile, so deep down we were both kind of hoping to be sent to Patagonia, alas that was not to be. For my first week I was placed in Los Angeles (Chile, not California!), and Jo in Concepcion-then for the second week we were both back in Santiago. With little spare time to explore the respective cities there’s not a lot I can tell you about the districts; as for the camps themselves-we got to work with some great people in an extremely positive and enthusiastic summer camp environment-so more great teaching experiences under our belts. The only negative being that we had to comprise a lip dub to Justin Bieber’s Sorry, which still haunts my dreams now…If I never hear that song again it will be too soon!

Having loitered in the central region of Chile for long enough, we now had some time to be tourists for a while, and from the recommendations of many, we were headed North to San Pedro, before making our way into Peru. San Pedro is the gateway from which to explore the Atacama Desert, something that neither Jo or I had considered before our trip to South America-but it is thought to be the oldest desert on earth, the oldest continuously dry region on the planet, (it has experienced extreme hyper aridity for at least 3 million years!) and is the home of the other worldly terrain of the Chilean Valle de la Luna. Not surprisingly at one point NASA tested their Mars landing equipment there and looked for signs of life in the earth of the desert-finding none …..You could say that this place is barren!
First we had to get there though, and it turned out to be ‘one of those journeys’. I feel like I haven’t had a proper travel moan for ages, this trip certainly gave me fodder for a paddy of epic proportions. It was simple enough in theory-there was a direct bus from Santiago to San Pedro. It was a night bus so we would get some form of faux chair/bed, hop on, fall asleep, arrive in San Pedro-easy! Alas that wasn’t to be the case in this instance. The chain of events that followed can’t really be explained properly as no one explained anything to us during the whole journey! What I can tell you is that our simple one bus journey evolved into a mammoth four bus marathon! First up our bus just stopped at one station and was there for what seemed like an age, there appeared to be some problem with the door-so we had to wait until a mechanic could come and fix it. Fast forward an hour and a half and we were set to recommence our journey, off we go again all happy and relieved that things were sorted. At some point during my broken slumber we shuddered to a halt and informed that we would now be changing buses, on some random street at an ungodly hour in the morning. Ok, so a grumble and a little bit of a moan, but the other bus was there so we quickly changed and got ourselves comfortable again….For about ten minutes, when the new bus pulled into another bus station and kicked us off! We were simply told that we would need to catch another bus to San Pedro-as our bus was now out of service! With our extremely limited Spanish, and the help of a fellow traveller, it looked like we would have to wait at this bus station for three hours for the next bus to San Pedro, or take another two buses which would get us there sooner-so we opted for the latter, adding an unwelcome 4 hours onto the total journey time. Eventually we made it-30 hours later-but for sure my patience with people when I’m tired and travelling is limited, and it hasn’t gotten any better over the last year and a half!

Having finally arrived during the dark of night, we managed to get a taxi (a random 4X4) to take us out to our ‘desert base’ and soon we settled into our tent excited about what San Pedro had to offer; yes, that’s right, we were going to be braving some camping in the desert. The Atacama is also home to the imaginatively named Very Large Telescope (VLT), for the very reason that there is nowhere better on the planet to look at the midnight skies. Unfortunately my camera isn’t up to the job of demonstrating the displays of stars that we were treated to each night, so you’ll have to take my word for it-it was spectacular, and as we were camping outside of the town where there is zero light pollution-we were treated to a wondrous show each night. 

When we actually managed to get into San Pedro the next day we discovered the town itself to be quite the tourist haven, with dusty ‘Mad Max’ type streets and adobe buildings-you really feel as if you are experiencing a time gone by-all be it truth be told I think that nowadays it purely exists as a tourist destination. That doesn’t take anything away from being there though, it really is a funky little town. 

Like everyone else arriving in San Pedro, you walk around a few tourist shops, have some food, and then set about organising your activities for the next couple of days-there are loads of tour agencies doing various excursions, from sand boarding and quad biking, to nightly stargazing walks. Our focus was on a visit to the unique Valle de la Luna, and to go and visit the nearby geysers. After exploring a few  options with the local travel companies you soon work out that they’re all very similar and you just need to negotiate yourself the best deal. Having gotten what we thought was a great deal, the next day we were on our way to explore the moon like landscape that the desert presents-quite simply it was absolutely gorgeous, a myriad of colours and surreal rock formations melting and pouring into each other-it was a little like being in a lava lamp: 

The entire day was breath-taking, the only downside being that our tour guide quite simply didn’t speak any English-it ended up being quite comical and forced us to try to use what little Spanish we had acquired to decipher the general gist of his tour. After a full day in the desert, the evening held nothing more than a beer or two and early to bed in the sweltering pod of heat that was our tent-but not for long, for at 4.00AM we would be getting picked up for the following days visit to the geysers. Now, for what happened next I blame on tiredness, although others may point to stupidity, I’ll leave it up to you to decide. As is the very nature of the Atacama, it’s hot….Really hot. So, 4 AM one morning getting ready to go and visit some geysers, where we have been told there are hot springs, Jo and I promptly dressed some nice lightweight shorts and t-shirts. It didn’t really occur to us that we would be going to 5,300m above sea level at the crack of dawn, and at that time, at that height, it may be just a little bit Chile (pun intended!!). It didn’t really sink in until we were surrounded by people on our minibus dressed for winter, looking at us as if we were crazy fools-and as such we arrived at the geysers to the amusement of many….Little freezing gringo couple-how funny! Anyway, aside from that the geysers were, again, spectacular, other worldly, wonderful….I run out of original superlatives so forgive me for repeating myself! The amusing thing is that unlike the UK there is  no real health and safety, merely the casual observation:

if you see a hole in the ground, try not to stand on it….

Arid desert, bubbling volcanic pools and hot springs, but still San Pedro wasn’t quite finished-to complete our stay we grabbed some mountain bikes to go and explore Pukara de Quitor, a pre-Columbian stone fortress overlooking the San Pedro river. With Machu Picchu looming in our futures it was a great introduction to the wonders that lay ahead. The ruins date back to the 12th century, and were built initially as a defence against internal threats from neighbouring villages and communities-upon the Spanish invasion they took on a more significant role in the defence from  these foreign invaders. It was to no avail though, as signified by two huge stone heads, carved into the rock in memory of the Pukará de Quitor leaders beheaded by the Spanish when they sacked the town in 1540. A few hours walk in the sweltering heat would stand us in good stead for future excursions, and obviously provided some more camera fodder!

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And so it was that we prepared to leave Chile for Peru,  with a feeling of a fair amount of unfinished business-as with Argentina, we have barely scratched the surface!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.