Peter Gardiner CP sent me the second part of his journal on the time he is spending volunteering in Cambodia. So to complete his story, please find as follows his account of the work and experiences he had while there.
As I write this, I sit in my hotel room in Bangkok, waiting for the next phase of this trip, and wonder where has the time gone.
Back at the school Monday, week four, and again, it was a lovely day. I keep saying it, but the kids are so great. This week I spent time with the older and more competent kids.
Firstly, I spent about an hour trying to teach Teachers Likik and Sam, how to pronounce “smile”. God, that was hard work. I’d break it up and bit by bit they could do it, but once they put it all together, it straight away became “smell.” The teachers and students are all very keen to learn, so they milk me for all they are worth which, of course, is why I am here. They are also incredibly polite, perhaps too polite sometimes, for their own good.
We have a little chat group where we share information about transport, pick ups, jobs, all that sort of stuff. Every time Rady, the volunteer coordinator, says something, he says “sorry for the inconvenience.” A minor thing happened on the work site last week, and he copped, I thought, some unfair criticism over it. Later, I took him aside, and had a quiet word to him, encouraging him, and just giving him a few tips on what to do in the future. He apologized to me for my being inconvenienced by the encounter!!! Every day, I say to someone, “you don’t have to apologize” usually many times.
Rady was telling me a story about his brother. His brother decided to go to work in Thailand, as the family were desperate for money. He worked for an illegal logger. He was earning great money, which was being sent back to the family. Anyway, after some time, the police caught up with them. The police then just rounded them up, tied them up, and burned them alive! Rady’s brother managed to escape, he spent a number of weeks hiding in the forest, and eventually made his way home. He was sick for a year.
Tuesday I spent at the office doing some work on the video, photos etc. we ate lunch at a local diner, lovely people. Being the generous guy I am, I picked up the bill. $7 for four of us! And we ended up with more than we could eat
Wednesday to Friday, back in the school. One of the things I find interesting is that because I don’t have a lot of conversation with them, the language barrier, being an issue, you spend a lot of time observing them. And it’s interesting to see the different personalities. The kind ones, the worried ones, the eager to learn ones. One lad in the oldest class, Seng, who I mentioned last week, he would be about 15. He is a very hard worker. And you can see that he wants to go places. He’s a very competent and kind young man. Unlike the other kids, he and his sister turn up in different and clean clothes each day. It turns out his parents have a business.
Most of the kids turn up for school each day wearing the same clothes. I was talking to Likik, and this little kid came and sat with us. His clothes were filthy. Of course, I say that without judgement. It reminds me a lot of PNG here. They are all incredibly friendly, old clothes or new.
I was in Likik’s class and they were learning food words: Ice cream, sugar, chocolate etc. So she had some flash cards, and she had cut up heaps of cardboard with different letters on it. So she would read out, say, “sugar” and they would have to find the letters in the pile, and make the word. And then on to the next word.
They were in two teams, and one team was winning all the time. Of course, with their new vocabulary, the boys in the group, when they won, would sing and dance, and go “champions” and flex their biceps!!!
I decided the other team needed some help, so I asked Likik if I could read out the words. So what I did was, let’s say it was “chocolate,” I would show the flash card to the kids who were losing, so they had about a ten second start on the other team. It all went pear shaped when the word was “jam” and when I read the word a nano second later. They had it right, and of course the other team smelt a rat. They did a bit of a dummy spit, which was fair enough. Anyway, they were then quite resourceful. They looked at the list of words (they had been written up on the white board) and started making them into what were possible combinations. Needless to say, order was soon re-established.
They are incredibly resourceful. Teacher Lida has the older kids. For the last few weeks they have been working on a garden. The soil here is like concrete. Anyway, he collected some left over wood from the workshop (the building warehouse is behind the school), and got the kids to make a fence. They sawed them all to the same length, then cut the ends into triangle shapes, for some simple decoration. The girls collected dirt and put them in old plastic bottles to mark out the paths. They collected cow poo and rice husks to make a sort of soil. All the plants came from cuttings at the kid’s houses. It’s a great little thing. Already some of the plants are starting to flower. Some look as though they will struggle, but most of them are on the way, even in this short time. It will look great when the plants get a bit older. But it is all something out of nothing. And the kids are not afraid of hard work. I feel embarrassed when I see how they get into things.
Friday night, Enola and I decided to see one of the local tourist attractions. It was a live show at the Angkor dynasty. The hotel owner’s wife, herself Khmer, had seen it and raved about it.
Well it was sensational. I’m going to make a big call: the best live show I have ever seen, and I doubt if I will see better. It was all dancing, acrobatics, a story line about Khmer history. It was spellbinding. An amazing experience
It was full of Chinese, not that I have anything against the Chinese, but the Chinese tour market here is huge. I’m sure most of them would never meet a Khmer person. They would stay at the Chinese hotel, be served by Chinese waiters, get on the Chinese bus etc. There is a duty free store near here, and when my camera died, I thought I might try there. I didn’t realise it was set up for the Chinese tourists. Well there were five Chinese buses waiting outside. It was full of Chinese. I wasn’t thrown out, good luck to them, but I was obviously not part of their target market
Unfortunately, with the softening of the Chinese economy, the number of tourists have declined this year by about 10 – 15%. I know it is the low season here now, but it is amazing how quiet the place is
There is a resort city down south called Sihanoukville. Apparently, it’s been taken over by the Chinese. They have built hotels, casinos. There is something like 80,000 Chinese workers and expats there. Apparently, the triads run the town, and there is a lot of violence there. Recently an under construction building collapsed, and 28 workers died. Of course, it was an illegal construction. But the local authorities have lost any control. The Chinese government have made it part of their one belt one road program.Here is a video that talks about it:
Enola went to Pnomh Penh for the weekend to catch up with some friends down there. So I spent the weekend doing tourist things.Angkor Wat was number one on my list. This is the reason why people come here. The old Hindu turned Buddhist temples are amazing. This is my third trip here, so I had seen the temples before. An all day temple tour is exhausting. After you have seen about three, you have seen the lot.
So I asked a tuk tuk driver in the morning, who parks near here, would he do a tour for me. Starting at 3 in the afternoon, then just three temples, then the sunset – that’s all. $10 was the agreed price. When 3 o’clock came we met up, and he mentioned that I wouldn’t see much in three hours. That was the idea, I said. We set off. It wasn’t a particularly nice afternoon – overcast, but no rain.
There are a couple of favorites of mine, and probably most other people. Ta Prohm has amazing trees growing out of it, with roots going everywhere. It is amazing.
I get quite frustrated by all the tourists!!! There are a couple of spots that are popular for snaps, and so there is a line of people who either use a selfie stick, or get someone to take their photo and stand for ever in front of something that is quite beautiful. They must go home with hundreds of photos of themselves blocking the view!!!!
The Bayon temple is my favourite. It has a large number of carved stone faces, which I find quite amazing. It is actually mis-named, it is named after the Banyan tree, under which the Buddha attained enlightenment. There are over 200 carved stone faces, which are believed to be the resemblance of the King Jayavarman VII, who was the mastermind of much of the Angkor Wat complex. Not only did he build many of the Temples, he also built over a hundred rest houses and hospitals at set points along the way, for the purpose of assisting pilgrims making the trek. His inscription at one of the monuments reads: “He suffered the illnesses of his subjects more than his own; because it is the pain of the public that is the pain of kings rather than their own pain.”
He was actually a Buddhist. Most of the temples were originally built as Hindu temples, but he built the Buddhist side of things.
Sunset at Angkor Wat was underwhelming, so I made arrangements to come back for the sunrise – me and about 5000 other people! Fair dinkum, the traffic heading out at 4.30 was like Parramatta Road. I put my running shoes on when I got there, and managed to get a good spot. The pics are nothing spectacular, but it was a calm and peaceful moment, as most people just took in the awesome moment.
I did the Angkor Museum in the afternoon, which was quite beautiful. My experience was dulled when I found out that the national bird of Cambodia is the Giant Ibis!!! Maybe we should send some of our Marrickville Ibis back there?
Monday arrived and it was back to school. Monday and Tuesday, teacher Likik was away. Her sister was involved in a pretty serious motorbike accident, and so she was away looking after her. I think the sister’s leg copped the brunt of it, and she cant walk at the moment.
With Likik away, that meant most of my time was in the classroom. I quite like it. It is pretty chilled. Teacher Sam runs both classes, she runs between them both, and I help the students with their English. It’s mostly pronunciation, grammar etc. Its usually pretty easy, but sometimes a student will have made a minor mistake, or said something that is sort of right, but not the way we would say it. So it is a major drama as I try to explain to the kid what they need to put. Most times it works OK, but occasionally I have to get one of the kids to run next door to get Teacher Sam so I can explain to her, and she can explain to the student in Khmer.
The kids are so sweet, attitude is nonexistent as they choose to come to the school, so it is not too difficult. The explanations are the hard part. Sometimes I will have eight or more kids around me while I try to correct them, one at a time.
Tuesday, they decided to sit some of the students in their class, while I supervised the students who came to the computer room. The computer room has about 20 computers. I had forgotten, but I had donated some of these, with other people’s money, of course. I’m quite generous like that!
They are pretty simple computers, and they use the UBUNTU system, of which I am only very basically connected with. But it didn’t take long for me to become the tech guru. I managed to get most of them going, which mostly entailed me pulling out plugs and putting them in again! I think we’ve all done that. The interface wasn’t the best, so I managed to make a few minor changes. But it was fun. The class was typing practice, so if they didn’t get 100%, they couldn’t go onto the next screen. Of course, I could read where to re do the test while they, of course, could not. But it did make me something of a tech genius!!!
One good thing is that we are starting to get some rain. Not just the usual 4 pm thunderstorm, but the good solid downpours that they have been waiting for so long. We have had some great thunderstorms. The frogs are coming to life around the hotel and I am starting to see people working in the rice paddies. When I am in Vietnam, I notice all the workers out in the fields. That hasn’t happened here because with no rain, there has been little to tend. But with this great rain, now they are getting out to work
On Wednesday afternoon, I asked Daral, the tuk tuk driver, to take me around the village so I could see where and how these families live. We asked the village leader for permission, which was readily granted. I was surprised to find that there really is no village. You have a road, and maybe every hundred meters there’s a house, and the rice paddies belonging to that family are behind the house. Occasionally, there will be a roadside stall, but the sense of a village, per se, just doesn’t seem to happen, at least in the countryside.
Daral pointed out where there were now cashew farms, mango farms, you name it farms – it was once all pristine forest. The devastation continued on for kilometer after kilometer.
Occasionally you will come across a “town” where a few businesses gather. There is one such town a little bit out of here, which seems to house mostly industrial businesses. I’ve been through there a couple of times, and it’s quite filthy.
On the way home, Daral took me on the back roads. It was quite fun. We found one family sitting down having lunch and they were incredibly welcoming. We sat and “chatted” for some time. We then took another back road, but the rain was teeming down, so It was all slipping and sliding. I was sure we were gonna go over!
One day a week at least is in the library. So they have some set reading, and then they can pick out books to read. I think I know most of the books by now.
One set of books is of group of photos, with words, which may be counting or items and they have to say what they are. One example that is in nearly every book is “candle”. So it might be “four candles” (two Ronnies fans will be happy https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CNTM9iM1eVw) So we made a bit of a guessing game around it. Didn’t matter what it was, six or three, I’d say, “what do you think they are?” I had about six kids and they would all scream and laugh, “Candles!!!” It was just a heap of fun.
On Friday, I went back to film the family we had built the house for. This is one of my projects, to show things from start to finish, with the building process. It was a great experience. The dad could not help but keep smiling. I may have mentioned that in the old house, the two eldest girls slept with the grandmother, there was no room in the old house. I asked them what some of the benefits of the new house were. Basically the two oldest girls sleep in the room, and mum and dad and the youngest girl sleep on what we would call a verandah.
The oldest girl, who is probably about 16, spoke of the usual things like a place to study and do homework. But a big difference to her now was that she had friends at school. With the old house, there was so much shame that no one wanted to be her friend. But now she has some new friends. I might add that she is a very articulate and friendly young lady, so it wouldn’t be because of that that she has no friends. But now she has some worth because of the new house.
The dad spoke of how now he could protect his family. Mum spoke of how now they were close together they could talk about things in their life. Even the translator was amazed at how much benefit could come from even something like that. He himself as a kid lived in a shanty house, and spoke to me of how it affected him so negatively.It was a very moving experience.
Saturday awoke, and I decided to head to the local markets. Sela is where all the locals go. Again, it was just a feast of sights and sounds. It’s quite huge. There is absolutely everything there. You can pick your chicken and get it killed on the spot. One woman had a stall with all meat on it, except it was completely unidentifiable. The only thing I could work out were the eyes. These big huge eyes. God knows what the other parts were.
That afternoon I decided to at least see Apopo, the rat de-mining exhibition. After all the drama of last time, and not seeing it then, basically, I was disappointed. It was great seeing the rats in action. That took about 5 minutes. I learnt that the rats are too small to set off the land mines. They are taught to scratch the surface when they smell something. They can smell an infinitesimally small amount of TNT. They are also used in TB screening of samples, in other countries. They had an area that was covered with sand, and they had two baubles, one with a small sample of TNT, and the other with nothing. The baubles were the size of hailstones. It walked straight past the clean one, which was visible, but detected the one that was buried in the sand. The figure they quote is that they can clear an area the size of a tennis court in 30 minutes, which would take a human team all day.
After that 5 minute display, which was quite interesting, we then sat and watched about half an hour of videos, most of which I had seen on YouTube. The Apopo thing is quite outstanding, amazing really, and the bloke who thought of it is a genius, but after all the trouble I went to, to see the actual museum, well, it was basically nothing to write home about. Which is a silly thing to say, because that is what I am doing right now.
Sunday I booked Daral, our tuk tuk driver, to take me up to Tonle Sap. Enola had gone to Bangkok for the weekend, and Daral had offered to take me around and visit some of the families. This is where we watched the sunset from, dining on frog and rat. But at the bottom of the hill, is a shantytown, and it is the poorest of the poor.
At the moment, with little rain, it is all dry. The houses are built on stilts, but in the wet season, they are supposed to be flooded up to the floor, and the roads are under water (roads being a term that over describes them). I was walking along, and the first house I came to, there was a woman sitting at the door. I asked if I could take her photo and she said yes. I noticed in the room behind her was a man. He had the most interesting face, covered with lines, but still with a warmth and beauty. I “walked” up the path to their house (which was strips of bamboo sort of strung together). It was a pretty rickety stairway. I got to the door, and the bloke was inside still, I asked him if he could come to the door, I wanted to get some light shining on his face. He dragged himself to the door, and Daral whispered to me, “he can’t walk.” I’m thinking this is going really well, here. Anyway, I took some photos of him. I just love it. Probably one of my favourite photos of all time. His face is just a tale of lifeand hope and despair and laughter. It will be coming to a Christmas card near you soon.
We continued to walk around the village, it really was a lesson in humility. These people have nothing. Nothing!
Monday morning arose, and I headed off to my last day at school. I decided not to take my camera, just to sit there and soak in the experience. These kids are simply quite beautiful. They are so sweet and innocent and joyful. I know they have their moments, but it is really great.
Class wise, Teacher Ee asked me to help mark the exams her students had taken on the previous Friday. I was looking forward to this, because one of the questions she gave was for them to write a short passage on Rural Life in Cambodia. Most of the responses were the same, one student said rural life was very hard, but there was another theme running through many that life was in fact easier in the rural areas. They didn’t have the supermarkets and so on of the cities, and they had no money, but they didn’t need any. They could go out to the lake or rice paddies, and catch some fish, frogs, or crabs or whatever for dinner. City folk, if they had no money, just starved.
I decided to buy lunch for the staff, all five of them. I bought some pork the night before from one of the street barbeques where my hotel is. They have a bbq with only pork. Having said that, there was intestines, ears, everything. I was hoping to pick out a few more common cuts, but they just grabbed a few bits and cut them all up.
It reminded me of an old joke my dad use to tell, that they went to a place that similarly had all bits of pork. When they asked, what did they have to drink, the waiter replied, bore water. To which my dad replied, geez, you don’t waste any of that pig.
I used the usual OH and S standards here: buy the pork 16 hours before use, put it in the fridge briefly, and then let it sit un-refrigerated until eaten, which can be of any length of time. It works. I’ve been surprised how I have hardly been unwell at all.
Tuesday, 27th,we headed off for our staff retreat. We had a week of 5 o clock starts. It was a team building experience for the team. About 20 staff in all went, plus myself and Enola.
The day was exceptionally long as we had a lot of ground to cover. We were basically heading to the north and east of Cambodia. During the bus trip, designated members of staff gave talks on various topics. It was all in Khmer, so you can guess I was riveted. We stopped for lunch at a river with quite a sensational section of rapids. In fact, it was the Laos border. Back on the bus, the talks were over, and it soon became a bit of an end of season footy trip. The boys had all chipped in and bought beer. Needless to say, all the boys were at the back of the bus, and all the girls at the front. I was invited back to share a beer. I had one, and managed to spray most of the contents over Enola. I then told her that she was now a Catholic!
We eventually got into town, and had dinner, then to KARAOKE. Well, I ruled, of course. Bit of Elvis, bit of Enrique Iglesias, and I had them in the palm of my hand. So much so, that one of them took over the controls and from then on, only Khmer songs were played. I was not quite sure how to take that. Anyway we laughed and sang and dance for an hour or so, and it was back home and off to bed. One of the things here is that they don’t care who they dance or sing with. There would obviously be cultural things about boys and girls singing and dancing in public, if they weren’t partnered, but the boys can sing and dance with the boys, and the girls with the girls. It really was a great night.
Wednesday, we had a short drive, maybe only 4 kms to another lake, where we had lunch. It was really quite beautiful. The boys had organised some of the local brew, what was some rice wine, and what else I’m not quite sure, but you drank it through the straw, and the straws were stuck in sand or mud at the bottom of the urn. It really was quite odd, and quite disgusting if I may say so. They had also bought a heap of food at the markets in the morning, and did a bbq.
Again, the markets had everything. Everything. There were quite a few sellers with a buckets of cockroaches. Another seller had the raw and racked rats. There was even a dead hedgehog for sale. It was really quite amazing.
After the day at the lake, we got back to the hotel, and we still had heaps of meat. So they decided to have a bbq of the leftovers. Only problem was they had no rice. So Buon, one of the men, hailed down a tuk tuk, and then 20 minutes later, returned back with about 12 containers of steamed rice. I guess this is the Cambodian equivalent of a Macca’s run.
After that we still had some time to kill, so Rady and the team split us into pairs, for a fashion contest sort of thing. Needless to say, I was paired with Enola. We had to dress up singularly, then pair up, to present a play. Well, of course, I had no idea what to do. Enola grabbed every prop she could, including a broom, and ended up looking most unattractive. I decided to put on a few things, and grab an empty beer can, and fill it with water, then pretend I was drunk. Well that part went over well. Then we had to do something together. So I put on a rain jacket, and told Enola to grab the “beer” can, and tip it over me. Well you would have thought we had won the Oscars.
There were about 6 teams. Then we had to describe what our concept was. Well we had no idea, we had just made it up. The other descriptions were quite vivid. One of the other guys had grabbed a basket and was limping around. I thought he was imitating a land mine victim begging for money, which I thought was a bit rough. Turns out he was a doctor who had decided to become a pickle seller. Don’t even ask me!!!
Anyway, we had to describe our concept, so I used the old chestnut, we were portraying world peace. I outdid myself in drivel as I explained that myself and Enola had come from completely different parts of the world, and had found a shared experience amongst all the kindness and love of Cambodian people. Fair dinkum, I was in the zone.
Needless to say, we won, and I asked for a moment of solemn silence, as we all prayed, deep in our hearts, for world peace. Who says you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear? It was a fun night out of nothing.
Thursday, and we were all on the bus again at 5 am, for what turned out to be a beautiful day. We stopped at a place called Basroa falls. An absolutely stunning waterfall. Further to it, all the team got dressed up in traditional gear, and it was just a beautiful thing. Words can’t describe the beauty of this day.
I had a thought during the day that I had found a place that I could never have found on my own through the love and care of these wonderful Cambodian people. And I would probably never be there again, and we would never be there as a group. Probably never, so just savour the love and goodness and beauty that is there. It was a great day.
By the time we headed off, the rain was really coming down. We stayed at a lodge owned by local indigenous people (who also owned the waterfall). I quite enjoyed staying in the hut, though the door to the bathroom was about 1 metre high, so I lost count of how many times I hit my head on the door.
Last day we headed back to Siem Reap. Another 5 a.m. start, and more talks by staff. What I found interesting was that the sharing by the group was more personal. It was really quite moving.
Ee has recently been employed by the school as the head teacher. I pegged her at about 26 years of age, she looked very young, but she has done quite a lot in her life, even starting a school herself. It turns out she is 22 – she has really packed it in. She shared a very moving story of how she had been hurt by life (she didn’t go into the personal details, just the general story – which of course is fine) and how she pulled herself together. I was quite touched by it.
People spoke about others who had mentored them. The builders all pointed out Bun Theun. Bun is probably the oldest bloke there, which makes him significantly younger than me. But many of the staff of VBC come from very poor backgrounds, rubbish jobs that pay no money, and they have to learn building skills to build these houses. And these other four young fellows spoke about Bun Theun’s kindness, and patience, and skill in bringing them onboard. It was quite humbling.
One discussion moved onto cultural issues. Nica, a lovely young local woman who works in the office, spoke of how she was proud to be Cambodian and would always look after her parents and so on. She really valued the family connections.
One of the other young women basically said she rejected all that. She was living her own life, and it was up to her parents to look after themselves. She was adopting the western way of life.
Sinn, the founder of VBC, then said he was proud of his culture, and was happily looking after his parents, and it was no problem to him. He has also visited Australia, and he realises Westerners do it differently, but there are still many great things about western culture.
He then posed a question that made me think a lot: ‘Which is more valuable, diamonds or gold?’My left side of the brain was working overtime – ‘well it depends what you want it for, blah blah blah,’ and the discussion went on, mostly in Khmer. Occasional translations were made for me and Enola. Buon is one of the builders, a fine young man. And he made his observations in Khmer. Then his last line was translated for us. He simply said, whatever is the more valuable, they are even more valuable when they go together. I just thought, what an inspired beautiful thought by a simple humble builder who has come from nothing.
And that, my dear friends, brings us to the end of this week’s entertainment.
I am in Thailand at the moment, I’m suppose to be following up stuff for Bill Crews, but it is really going nowhere at the moment. I will catch up with some different groups, but I am not sure we can provide a lot of assistance. They have plenty of people on board, and labour is cheap. Its intellectual property they need, to write programs, manuals and that sort of stuff. So lets see how that goes.