Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Floating village on Tonle Sap

After my visit to the temple of Beng Melea we drove for about another hour south, this time to Lake Tonle Sap (a huge lake which goes all the way to Phnomh Penh, 5 hours drive away)... Because it is at the very end of the dry season the water levels are really low. All the houses nearby are raised up about 12 feet in the air on stilts, and after the rainy season will only be accessible by boat. Very strange indeed. As well as this there is an actual floating village which I got a boat out to, populated bizarrely by the Vietnamese. When I asked Mr Tee why it was Vietnamese people living there he said Í have no idea!' Fair enough. Still, it was interesting enough to see and has perhaps put me off my fantasy about living on a house boat one day....

Temples of Beng Melea

On my Saturday off work I decided it was time to get some proper tourist action in.. Having visited all the main temples before I decided to go a bit further afield... to Beng Melea, 2.5 hours away by tuk tuk. It was well worth it as it is a beautiful crumbling temple surrounded and encroached on by magnificent trees.. at times I felt like I was in Lord of the Rings tee hee. I went with a 'Mr Tee', friend of Tia my driver friend at Helping Hands. Very nice chap who let me indulge in all sorts of nice street foods from beef noodle soup, to more sugarcane juice, to rice inside bamboo- been waiting on that one a long time! yum.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

First week at school....

So my first week is up, it is has been fun, exciting and most definitely a new experience. As I've said before, the journey out there takes you past some amazing sights from the temples of angkor to the paddy fields you end up in with buffalo walking past... the school itself has been operating for about three years I think. Built by Helping Hands in order to improve the education possibilities of the students in the village, providing English lessons plus lessons in heath and hygiene, as well as providing breakfast and uniforms etc. All the money to do this has been provided by donoations to Helping Hands, remarkable really.

This week I was assisting the afternoon teacher, Sopeap, in teaching two classes of students. The first are slightly younger, I think from about 9-12, and the second class are slightly older again, up to about 14 I think. They all look quite a bit younger than you would expect, which is either due to cultural differences or me getting the wrong end of the stick and they are actually younger!!

Each day Tia, the HH driver who has been taking me all week, and I arrive at about 3pm. Usually the school is locked up until Sopeap arrives so I sit there trying to talk to the kids who shyly smile at me and then laugh. They are really v cute, with a nice mixture of cheeky. There is also a kindergarten class taught by a nice lady called Soavanna, where they are learning their khmer ABC's, not english. so when you arrive it feels like there are hundreds of kids all running around all over the place. The little ones following the older ones, the girls holding hands and congregating near the door, the boys all chasing each other and getting water from the water pump (the lego looking thing pictured). These seem like very happy kids which is lovely to see.

When Sopeap arrives the kids pour into the classroom, the girls all then sweep the room of dust! They all have different jobs namely sweeping, getting water from the pump, watering the plants (the school growns vegetables to put into their breakfast programme), monitoring the library... it is nice to see kids who are all so dedicated and hardworking. they are still kids though, practically every day i have seen the boys chasing the girls around the room with some sort of insect they have found, making the girls scream, It makes me laugh to think how we are all the same really. I just hope one day it isn't a spider or I will be screaming too!

Sopeap is a very good teacher, even though he is young and still studying himself. He is from the village himself and in his own words from 'a very poor family' and has to support his family as much as he can, from his own salary (which by our standards is tiny). I am in awe of the hard work I have seen by so many people here, and the dedication they have to supporting their families and bettering their lives.

On tuesday Sopeap was late due to a family emergency (this was unheard of as he had never been late before!). Unsure what to do I dragged Tia, the driver, in to help me with the lesson. He is a really nice and funny guy, with pretty good English. All in all it was actually hilarious. Between the two of us we cobbled together a lesson about family members, at one point I asked all the kids to draw their families. They all looked blankly at us and Tia said they had never drawn before, but they seem to enjoy it when they got going, all chatting animatedly. Fortunately Sopeap eventually arrived which was good - I am definitely glad I am assisting!! Unlike scores of people I know I will not be changing careers to go into teaching fulltime anytime soon!

Still, I really enjoyed it. The heat was intense at points, one day I had completely soaked through my clothes and had sweat literally pouring off me (poor kids- must think these sweaty white poople so strange!) but as I discovered on my ride home on friday, the rainy season is here.... We got poured on as a huge storm erupted, the lightening here lighting up the red sky is quite phenomenal... and it seems to be raining every night since. But I am not complaining, I am English after all, and at least it has cooled down!!!

Monday, April 20, 2009

Siem Reap: "It really does take it out of you"

So.. I have spent the last week thoroughly enjoying myself. The realisation I wouldn't be teaching for a week and the subsequent gloom I had felt quickly disappeared as I became used to being a bit of a bum! Siem Reap is akin to a wild west sort of town, hot dusty roads you expect to see tumbleweed rolling over... but it is also mixed with such a huge selection of swish bars, cafes and restaurants it is quite unbelievable. Of course, I have been doing my best to sample a fair few of these, intermingled with time spent eating at stalls etc. I spent time swimming at hotel pools and hanging out, but I also managed a few cultural things such as visiting the angkor national museum, which was quite helpful ahead of visiting the temples... I also spent an afternoon visiting a silk farm, oddly interesting... a man-made lake where loads of khmer people were enjoying a day out (it was still the national holiday) swimming and running around, and a quick visit to the war museum.. which is mainly a selection of rusting and decaying tanks sat in a kind of garden, with wispy plants and flowers winding their way around them.

It is amazing how quickly time can pass when you are "taking it easy". I have also discovered a love for the sugar cane drink everyone seems to have, you get it with ice in a plastic bag... I would have one every day if it wasn't for the fear I might end up with a rather nasty side effect one day!

My friend Ian and his girlfriend Abbie both arrived on Saturday which was unexpected and exciting, we have spent the last few evenings catching up whilst sampling different restaurants and drinking angkor draft beer... it has been nice to hang out with people I know and socialise a bit... and naughtily eat things like pizzas with!! I always thought this trip would be a massive detox and I'd lose lots of weight, but sat a minute ago tucking into a delicious croissant and coffee in the sun outside a very french cafe, I am starting to think I might need a little more will power for that to happen... this really is turning into an "eat,pray,love" holiday, with siem reap being italy... not quite sure a month in china will be as spirtual as staying on an indian yoga retreat though!

well school starts today so my little foray into a siem reap holiday will be coming to an end.. but i think this is very much a good thing!!
I went out to the village yesterday! I didn't actually teach but I visited the school. The journey out there is amazing, past ankor wat and loads of amazing temples, and then on this dirt road through rice paddies... the school seems very well built and organised, and the children appeared diligent in their chores of sweeping the classroom and getting water from the water pump. It was the little ones yesterday, who i won't be teaching... but i start today!! I feel a bit nervous but am also trying not to think about it too much, I figure worrying myself about it won't help. The only slight negative was the heat really, i will have to make sure i take loads of water with me, it is hard to explain what this heat is like but it really does "take it out of you"... this is the new phrase of the week!

Monday, April 13, 2009

Siem Reap:never assume things will go to plan

As alluded to earlier, part of the reason I am making this trip east is to visit various charity projects that MSAVLC supports. First on my list is “Helping Hands Cambodia” a small community aid project which helps several villages outside of Siem Reap, neighbouring Angkor Wat. The charity was founded by an Australian Photographer named Deborah Groves in 2005 and to date has succeeded in various projects such as building bridges and roads, a school and community centre, a “work for bike” programme, and a breakfast programme- to name just a few. MSAVLC began funding Helping Hands last year and having previously met Deborah in London I was keen to come out and be of assistance. Therefore I had decided to spend a month volunteering to teach English at the school. When I was in KL I received an email from Deborah stating that unfortunately she has had to return to Australia for a while for personal reasons and that the week I arrive is actually the beginning of the Cambodian new year, a holiday which lasts for a week which means the school would actually be shut! So, as it turned out I arrived in Siem Reap not knowing exactly what to make of things. Chanty, the Cambodian Director, is also away on holiday this week.

Needless to say when I arrived I was feeling a bit confused and uncertain about how best to spend my time here and who, what when etc...

Fortunately I have settled in fine. Siem Reap is a hot, bustling dusty place but it is full of life and plenty of things to keep a Westerner with time on her hands busy... I have found myself a small guest house near enough the main part of town to be within walking distance but also quiet and opposite the river. It's also adjacent to a small school (possible orphanage?) so the sound of kids shrieking and playing wakes me up nice and early, but it's actually oddly quite nice! Plus about 2 mins away there is a bigger fancier hotel with a delightful rooftop swimming pool where I can come and spend the afternoon swimming (for a small price of course!) which is pretty much deserted... and therefore bliss! I guess everyone is out at the temples!! Which I will get round to.. but hey..plenty of time yet!

Kuala Lumpur Part 2: the twilight zone

Due to jet lag I had some bizarre sleeping and waking patterns during the three days in KL meaning that I unfortunately ended up napping in the afternoon and promptly being awake most of the night. Having previously scoffed at people complaining about jet lag I feel suitably put in my place, not sure why I had it so bad when I haven't in the past, perhaps because I am on my own and have had no will power to stay awake... my first day I spent navigating the monorail and walking through Little India and Chinatown, and the old town parts of KL. After a weird sleeping waking episode and having been up since 1am the following day I decided to “seize the day”, and left my room at 7am (when dawn breaks)and walked to Chinatown, about half an hour away. The sun was shining, it was already roasting, and joining the commuters was actually quite interesting (christ someone punch me for just saying that). Wandering about Chinatown at this time is fascinating, you are just starting to see people wandering about, stalls opening up. I was searching for somewhere to have dim sum having had a delicious and truly memorable steamy dim sum meal upon my arrival in KL five years ago... which sadly remains elusive. I did however enjoy my breakfast of beef noodle soup at the Li Foong restaurant almost just as much.

Kl is a nice city, everyone is very friendly and it feels very safe to wander about. I didn't even find crossing the roads too difficult! It has been the perfect place to start my trip and spend a few days getting over jet lag (supposedly!). When I got tired of pounding the hot, dusty streets I could step inside one of the many huge shopping malls where people seem to spend a lot of their time soaking up various americana...all in all my brief time I had there I had a really good time, albeit slightly weird due to my mental state. Equator Hostel was perfect, the staff were extremely friendly, would highly recommend it to anyone who wants to stay outside the usual hotspot of china town...

Friday, April 10, 2009

Kuala Lumpur Part 1: Be careful what you wish for

The reason I say this is that I have to confess the few days before my departure I was having a fair few moments of panic, stress and downright fear! Most of all was the upset of saying goodbye to my family and leaving Adam behind... to board my Air Asia plane alone! Their boast of the first low cost long haul carrier certainly “does what it says on the tin” to the extent I felt like I had gone back twenty years and boarded a plane to Boston...perhaps it was one of them!!! Sadly this flight is double the length. Drinks and snacks need to be paid for, along with entertainment, and as the seats seemed incredibly tiny even for me, I would not recommend a twelve and a half hour flight in this manner to anyone bar the true penny pinchers we all know. But to be honest I am not complaining as it wasn't so bad....and fortunately somewhere between the first and last hour I had managed to compose myself and embark from the plane excited rather than freaked out.

I hadn't been off the plane for more than half an hour and I had already managed to land myself a prize weirdo. When looking for the bus into KL I was accosted by Lee from Birmingham. I was slightly all over the place trying to tie my hair back as I was already sweating like a trojan and it was only 6am and somehow Lee managed to discover I had already been to KL so promptly sat next to me on the bus asking all sorts of enlightened questions about whether he should drink the water and eat food from stalls...I know I sound like I am being a complete cow but this was swiftly followed by him telling me all about the hot Aussie he had sat next to on the plane and how he was looking to go out, get drunk and find some hot Malaysian women. I did feel a slight twinge of guilt completely turning down his offer to meet for drinks (yeah right) , but I do feel better knowing I would rather be all alone than listening to some toss pot.

Considering I had barely been in Malaysia for 1 hour and I was already cold shouldering a fellow traveller I figured things could only look up... so when I decided to have a spot of noodley brekkie (it was only 7 am and the hostel didn't open till 9) I didn't expect panic to immediately ensue with some French bloke shrieking that his bag had been stolen. Obviously I hadn't seen anything, I was far too busy trying to order breakfast and hadn't even noticed the guy so wasn't particularly helpful. Feeling like I was now eating in Malaysias top crime spot I huddled my bags around me rather pathetically and tucked in. Only to have a rather nice man named Sham (I kid you not) come and speak to me. He was a business man from Sarawang, but had apparently lived in England 10 years ago. When I asked him if he liked it I have to say he seemed like he had to force out a yes, but it turned out he went to Salford University so who can blame him.

Well all this adventure and chatting and it was still only 8am! But it was certainly the most excitement for one day because as soon as I checked in at the Equator Hostel I pretty much slept all day. That evening I wandered up to the Petronas Towers, KL is bizarrely simple to navigate although I wouldn't exactly describe it as pedestrian friendly. I ate some more mee goreng for dinner at a street stall, gulped down an ice cold beer and felt truly at peace with the world.