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

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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.

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!

….And now for something completely different!!

It goes without saying that our first day in Phnom Penh had a profound effect on both of us, and so the evening passed as a quiet and sober affair with contemplation and discussion of the day.
The following morning Thearea once again picked us up from our guesthouse and we set out for a day of more ‘traditional sightseeing’-The Grand Palace, The National Museum, and Silk Island (otherwise known as Mekong Island). Rather than another wordy post-a few pictures from our second day in Phnom Penh:

A view of the internal courtyard of The Grand Palace

A view of the internal courtyard of The Grand Palace

As you can imagine, the Cambodian people are extremely proud of Angkor Way, and it's a symbol you see everywhere-this is a replica featured in the Grand Palace

As you can imagine, the Cambodian people are extremely proud of Angkor Way, and it’s a symbol you see everywhere-this is a replica featured in the Grand Palace

The Grand Palace hosts a number of different monuments within it's grounds

The Grand Palace hosts a number of different monuments within it’s grounds

As is the norm, a stunning day without a cloud in the sky!

As is the norm, a stunning day without a cloud in the sky!

There are many, many Buddha statues in and around the Grand Palace.... and everywhere really!

There are many, many Buddha statues in and around the Grand Palace…. and everywhere really!

Buddha?

Buddha?

Not Buddha!!

Not Buddha!!

Spot the butterfly?!

Spot the butterfly?!

One of the numerous temples in the grounds

One of the numerous temples in the grounds

This is actually in the Palace grounds, and is a temple hidden within some shrubbery... what's that I hear you say? SHRUBBERY?

This is actually in the Palace grounds, and is a temple hidden within some shrubbery… what’s that I hear you say? SHRUBBERY?

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An absolute picture of calmness, always the way when travelling in Thearea's Tuk tuk!!

An absolute picture of calmness, always the way when travelling in Thearea’s Tuk tuk!!

A picture with the man himself on the ferry from Silk Island

A picture with the man himself on the ferry from Silk Island

From Phnom Penh and the craziness of a major capital city in Asia, the beach called-next stop Sihanoukville and the first island of what we hope is many, Koh Rong Samloem!

Phnom Penh: S-21 and Choeung Ek Killing Fields

….And so Siem Reap and the temples of Angkor fade into the distance as the next leg of our journey takes us on an eight hour bus journey to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. It was a long, hot, but relatively comfortable journey-it’s pretty much a single road that runs the whole way.

As you enter the outskirts of Phnom Penh I definitely noticed a sense of foreboding, after the wonder and beauty of Angkor, being thrust into a capital city is quite a shock to the system. As the bus pulled in to our drop off point, we were greeted with the usual gaggle of tuk tuk drivers touting for your business-I find myself having to bite my tongue at these points,as after a long and cramped bus journey, having to try to negotiate with tuk tuk drivers isn’t at the top of my to-do list! All I really want to do is stretch my legs and consume the environment that I now find myself in-but that just doesn’t ever really work out, so you just have to click into ‘negotiate’ mode and try and get the best price for your journey.

It was at this point we met our driver, Thearea (pronounced Thierre), and his first input to our journey was to strongly advise us against our choice of area to stay in….However we were not to be moved, we had found a bargain and we were sticking with our choice. As it turns out the guest house was great, but it was in a really dodgy area of Phnom Penh, and we were advised not to leave the premises after dark for fear of getting robbed! “Welcome to the capital!”
Thearea talked us into hiring for him the next day to takes us round the must see sights of the city, and so we retired to our lodgings for some food, a couple of beers, and a nice early night before the sightseeing to come.

The next morning arrived and we set off to immerse ourselves in some of the more upsetting and dark details about Cambodia’s recent past. I am, of course, referring to the atrocities that occurred in Cambodia under the rule of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. Lifting directly from Wikipedia for the sake of accuracy:

‘The organization is remembered especially for orchestrating the Cambodian genocide, which resulted from the enforcement of its social engineering policies. Its attempts at agricultural reform led to widespread famine, while its insistence on absolute self-sufficiency, even in the supply of medicine, led to the death of thousands from treatable diseases such as malaria. Arbitrary executions and torture carried out by its cadres against perceived subversive elements, or during purges of its own ranks between 1975 and 1978, are considered to have constituted genocide’

The Khmer Rouge government arrested, tortured, and eventually executed anyone suspected of belonging to several categories of supposed “enemies”,[30] including:

  • Anyone with connections to the former Cambodian government or with foreign governments.
  • Professionals and intellectuals – in practice this included almost everyone with an education, people who understood a foreign language and even people who required glasses
  • Ethnic Vietnamese, ethnic Chinese, ethnic Thai, and other minorities in the Eastern Highlands, Cambodian Christians, Muslims, and the Buddhist monks. The Roman Catholic cathedral of Phnom Penh was razed. The Khmer Rouge forced Muslims to eat pork, which they regard as forbidden (ḥarām). Many of those who refused were kill. Christian clergy and Muslim imams were executed.
  • “Economic saboteurs” – many former urban dwellers were deemed guilty of sabotage due to their lack of agricultural ability.

Those who were convicted of treason were taken to a top-secret prison called S-21. The prisoners were rarely given food, and as a result, many people died of starvation. Others died from the severe physical mutilation that was caused by torture.[58]

Our first stop was to visit the Tuol Sleng Genocide museum, the place where 20,000 people were held, tortured and killed. Under the Pol Pot regime education was abolished, and so quite perversely the prison known as S21 was previously a school.
Thearea picked us up at the guesthouse as promised, and as our journey began-the real impact of the recent history started to become more and more apparent. Thearea is 46 years old, and he lived through the genocide that the country faced in those four years-and as we ride in the back of his tuk tuk, he began to share his personal account of what happened. The stories that he shares over the next two days are incredibly moving, he looks forward with hope and optimism despite the atrocities that he personally witnessed, and for sure Thearea emerged as something of an inspiration.
We arrive at the museum and the first block you enter is the part of the school that was converted into the torture cells, and the atmosphere is thick and menacing. As we went through the cells where the torture occurred, the mood drops significantly and you can’t help but feel upset and sickened at what had happened in these rooms-metal bed frames and iron shackles littered throughout, and ominous stains on the floors.
Through these cells and you come to a collection of pictures of some of the victims held at S-21, as well as many of the staff who were responsible for their incarceration. Many of the Khmer Rouge army were young children and teenagers, taken from their families at a young age, and brainwashed into following the command of the regime-often their first victims would actually be their own families, as part of the indoctrination to the army.

The torture cells, complete with leg shackles

The torture cells, complete with leg shackles

Pictures of the victims found in the cells

Pictures of the victims found in the cells

The holding cells

The holding cells

The entrance to the holding cells

View down on the prison yard

View down on the prison yard

Feeling pretty overwhelmed, we continue our journey and follow what would have been the final journey for those who were incarcerated at S21, The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. There are many of these sites across Cambodia, roughly 1.4 million Cambodians were executed in total, but Choeung Ek is perhaps the most famous and is now a Buddhist memorial to the victims. It is believed that all 20,000 people who were at S-21 found their final resting places here.

As with all of the stories relating to this period, the history is horrific-prisoners were transferred blindfolded from S-21, being told that they were being transferred to another prison. They would arrive at Cheoung Ek at night, and they would be executed and deposited into mass graves. To make this even more disturbing, the Khmer Rouge didn’t want to waste bullets killing these prisoners, and so they were killed using implements found at the site-from using farming tools to club the victims to death, to utilising the serrated edges on a palm tree to slit throats-the details are things of nightmares. Men women and children were slaughtered here indiscriminately, and bizarrely the Killing Fields today are quite beautiful.
Still bone fragments rise to the surface during the rainy season and these are collected and displayed in memory, they uncovered some of the mass graves but made the decision to leave the rest of the site untouched.
As you walk round you listen to an audio description of the atrocities that occurred, and it is quite overwhelming. At the end of the tour you come to the final resting place for many of the skulls and bones that were uncovered, sorted by age, sex and method of execution. A final tribute to those who lost their lives not only at S-21 and Choeung Ek, but throughout Cambodia at the time.

I had some knowledge of Pol Pot and his war crimes before we came here, and I shall take away a little more…However this doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the story of Cambodia and it’s people in recent history-and for sure I don’t have the words or complete understanding to do it any justice.
One thing that I can say though is that my experience of the Cambodian people has been fantastic-everyone that I have met has been so friendly and welcoming, given the fact that these atrocities happened in living memory for many-it’s testament to the resolve to move onwards-or at least that’s the impression that I get.

The Killing Fields

The Killing Fields

One of the mass graves

One of the mass graves

Walkway of reflection

Walkway of reflection

The Buddhist Stupa containing the memorial

The Buddhist Stupa containing the memorial

All the skulls organised over ten stories in height

All the skulls organised over ten stories in height

Display of skulls in the Stupa

Display of skulls in the Stupa

First stop proper, Siem Reap-Cambodia

After a bit of three day blur in Bangkok, our journey began at 4.55am (!!) on Tuesday 24th October. That’s right, we had to get up and out of our apartment to catch the train from Bangkok Central to Aranyaprathet, then to negotiate the reported touts and scams at the border town of Poipet, before heading to our current location Siam Reap-the city that now serves the ancient city of Angkor.

To be honest, I was quite apprehensive about our first foray into overland travel and crossing borders, especially when you consider that a lot of what I have read in preparation seems to focus on what can go wrong, rather than how you can just get it right. Perhaps things have changed, but for sure the journey proved to be much easier than I expected. First up was the 255km, 5 hour, third class only train-for just 48 baht (just under £1). Ok it took 6 hours, and my arse was a little numb at the end of it-but I’ve had much less pleasant experiences on British Rail and been charged a kings ransom for the privilege!

Why not take the opportunity to catch up on some sleep-we have 6 hours!!

Why not take the opportunity to catch up on some sleep-we have 6 hours!!

Quite easy to pass the time when this is outside your window

Quite easy to pass the time when this is outside your window

Our trusty steed!!

Our trusty steed!!

So, having managed the early start and the lengthy train journey-the part of the day that I was most concerned about-crossing the border!! The border town that we were crossing at is called Poipet, and from all reports  that I have read I was expecting to enter a lawless wild west of sorts. We hadn’t pre arranged our Visa’s and so it looked like we were destined to be scammed, pick pocketed, overcharged and spat out into Cambodia. Now admittedly the border is a very strange place, but I fancy that was somewhat magnified by my prior research and associated nerves. Truth is that it was very straight forward-you get stamped out of Thailand and enter a kind of wilderness where there are, quite bizarrely, three or four massive casinos!! Seriously, like a mini Vegas-apparently this is the place to come if you’re Thai and you want to gamble in a legal capacity! Then you go and get your Cambodian Visa in the official office, get yourself stamped through and hey presto-we made it! Now just for a three and a half shared taxi ride to the wonders of Siem Reap.


Finally, we’ve arrived-our adventure Tuk Tuk awaits

Fed, showered and rested, our Tuk Tuk arrives to take us on our first day of exploring. First stop-the floating villages of Tonle Sap and something that, if I’m to be honest, is a little bit of a weird experience. 6000, mostly Vietnamese and Khymer, people live in floating fishing villages on Cambodia’s largest lake. These people are beyond poor, and rely on catching catfish from the lake to make some income for their existence. Even more shocking than the conditions that they live in, is the fact that in recent years a typhoon absolutely devastated the community, and claimed the lives of many who lived and fished on the lake-evident in the presence of a sizable floating orphanage. It becomes apparent that the tours that you are taken on are a means to raise monies and donations for the village-not directly from the tickets, that goes to the government-moreso with supplementary expenditure with boat rides through the mangrove forests, and the option to purchase food for the orphanage-it’s nigh on impossible not to do something to help.

The typical dwellings of the people of the floating villages of Tonle Sap Lake

The typical dwellings of the people of the floating villages of Tonle Sap Lake

Still, even in adversity you can find beauty

Still, even in adversity you can find beauty

Onto the temples! An hours’ Tuk Tuk from the floating village and we are treated to our first encounter with Angkor Wat-the worlds largest religious monument-built in the 12th century, it’s absolutely breath-taking. It truly is epic in proportions, and really does need to be seen to be believed! As you arrive you are greeted with what has to be the worlds most impressive gatehouse on the shores of the moat that surrounds the temple, and then you have a long walkway into the depths of this gargantuan masterpiece. Just as impressive is the heat, as I struggle not to melt into the ground around me! Angkor Wat is just the start, we truly are at the beginning of exploring a lost civilisation, and formally the worlds greatest city…Some feel that the next temple you encounter, Angkor Thom, is actually more impressive because of the detail, and following that we moved onto the temple made famous by Lara Croft in Tomb Raider. I think that most people, with a view of Cambodian temples in their mind, would think of the famous image of a temple being consumed by the jungle-well that image is of Ta Prohm.

So that just covers off day one, come day two and we were a little more adventurous and decided to negotiate the perils of the unfathomable driving etiquette on mountain bikes-tackling the Angkor Grand Circuit with it’s many amazing temples and monuments. All in all we covered over 50km on our bikes on day two, exploring every temple that we could find-and rather than continue this lengthy post with more of my words-I’m just going to share some of the photos from a selection of the temples that we have visited, and I’ll be sure to keep on updating my Flickr account with more and more as we go along-I have hundreds!!! Food and coconut smoothies are calling, and I’m pretty sure if you’ve read this far you’re probably in need of a break as well!

The entrance to the gatehouse of Angkor Wat

The entrance to the gatehouse of Angkor Wat

The mighty Angkor Wat!

The mighty Angkor Wat!

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Originally a Hindu temple, Angkor Wat is now Buddhist  and is home to many shrines

Originally a Hindu temple, Angkor Wat is now Buddhist and is home to many shrines

View from the top of Angor Wat

View from the top of Angor Wat

First view of Angkor Thom

First view of Angkor Thom

Just one example off some of the stunning carvings found throughout the temples

Just one example off some of the stunning carvings found throughout the temples

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Angkor Thom in all its Glory!

Angkor Thom in all its Glory!

Tomb Raider Hicks!

Tomb Raider Hicks!

The jungle takes over-Ta Prohm

The jungle takes over-Ta Prohm