Saturday, March 28, 2009

No More!

I placed my last handmade shoes order today for one final pair of boots. But, having lined them all up I think its probably a good thing I am leaving now!

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Ratanakiri travels

On Saturday we headed off to Ratanakiri in the North East of Cambodia. Ratanakiri is a remote province in Cambodia. It takes 10 hours on the bus to get there (at least) and the road is unsealed.
Wikipedia has this to say:
Ratanakiri is sparsely populated; its 150,000 residents make up just over 1% of the country's total population. Residents generally live in villages of 100 to 300 people. Ratanakiri is among the least developed provinces of Cambodia. Its infrastructure is poor, and the local government is weak. The vast majority of Ratanakiri's population engages in subsistence agriculture. Health indicators in Ratanakiri are extremely poor, with nearly one in four children dying before age five. Education levels are also low; three quarters of the population is illiterate.

Knowing that western delights would soon be almost nil we stocked up on western products at 7am in the morning before boarding the bus. It became clear at the bus station that the bus was actually a small mini bus crowded with Khmers. We got on to cries of delight from the Cambodians “Barang” [Foreigner!]. The Cambodians then proceeded to talk about us for the next 10 hours in Khmer without any shame to the fact that we might be able to understand.

The route would take us through Kratie and Stung Treng before turning off for Banlung the province’s capital city. The journey was ok to begin with due to the lack of Khmer Karaoke which on a normal bus would be played at full volume. But, then the man next to me started to encroach on to my space... and the men behind me didn't realise they had to keep the windows shut for the air con to work and the Cambodians started eating in the confined space with their mouths open and no one appeared to have showered for a while.... and so it went downhill from there.

Our luxury transport- open the bonnet to cool the engine!

Our first stop was a “service station” somewhere in the province of Kampong Cham. The service was typical: small children selling fruit, older people selling fried bugs and toilets that aren’t the best. A rarity at this top were the broaches the children were wearing – Absolutely massive tarantulas. I tried not to show my utmost horror as these creatures crawled over the kids as they pointed it out to me an said "spider". Ugh! Other stops were necessary on the way to stock up on fruit/bugs/rice/toilet. Khmer buses like to stop a lot (say once every hour) and this journey was no exception.
We took an interesting shortcut to Kratie along a road with a fantastic view over the fields and where families were drying out what looked like large wood chips in huge quantites by the side of the road. Bright orange corn cobs seemed to be one of the main crops as many houses had it stacked up. Eventually we hit Kraite, then finally Stung Treng. We then turned onto another unseal led road. The road was amazingly so red with clay and the area remained green and jungle like despite the dry season. The houses were typical Khmer houses on stilts. It felt very isolated - These people were 10 hours away from Phnom Penh but light years away in terms of development.

Stunning sunsets over the jungle

Eventually we made it to Banlung. Just like the wild west - Red and dirty dust billowed from the unsealed roads as large trucks thundered in and out. Everything else very understated and quiet. Thankfully our accommodation was amazing. Yaklom Hill Lodge is pretty much a nature reserve where you stay in amongst the jungle in your own cabin. Fantastic but the sounds of the night were so loud! With the chirruping of the cicada (more like a drill/machine gun sound) combined with the calls of a large lizard sharing our room it wasn't quiet at all!

Against warnings of our insurance/mothers/own minds we hired a moped (I was the driver, naturally, having a driving licence would just be rude in Cambodia) to explore the area. Just outside Banlung there is a very beautiful lake (Yaklom). It was formed by a volcanic eruption almost 4,000 years ago. Its up to 50 metres deep and is 800 metres in diameter and a walking path around it. After the lake we made our way through ethnic minority villages to a waterfall - Kachang Waterfall - Sadly, as it is the dry season the usually large and impressive waterfall was not stunning but did provide a cool shower for me. While I was in the water a group of Cambodian men arrived. I had just enough time to change while they ran off to get their mates to have a look at the barang with hardly any clothes on!

Yaklom Lake and a dusty driver


Ratanakiri has many ethnic groups and we did a day trip on the river to visit a couple of the villages. First we had to get to Von Sai a tiny town with mainly ethnic Chinese people. The difference between the town and a normal Cambodian town was striking - All the shops were well ordered and pretty much as spotless as they could get. Then a boat trip down the river to 3 villages. The first was an ethnic Tampuan tribal village. The guide took us to their interesting cemetery and also I got to try 3 different pots of rice wine. Given that the wine is made from the river water its generally advised that you don't try it but it was too tempting! The Chinese village was spotless with a basketball court and a shed designated to charge the villages batteries. Our boat man's house was at this village - His house had a big satellite dish!

Cashew nuts growing inside their fruits.

Sugar Cane juice maker in the Chinese Village

Monks on the river

The tribal village cemetery. Those with merit have statues and elephant tusks carved out of wood on their grave to help guide them to their next life

This woman had gone against tribe traditions by having a husband but not telling the village or having a traditional ceremony - So, to punish they made this pregnant woman statue for her grave.

The tribal village

Rice wine is kept in jars like this and drunk through the bamboo "straws"

On the way back we decided to upgrade to a private car!!!!! We stopped for a carwash midway. The car was caked in thick red mud from a journey in the rain on the clay roads (!) The bonus were these children who thought me and the camera were absolutely hilarious!!

Friday, March 20, 2009


Its been a busy week here in Phnom Penh. On Wednesday I finished my second school job and headed straight over to another school to pick up one of the auctioneers ready for the jewellery auction that night... That's right, the kids at CCH were doing the auctioning of the pieces of jewellery and they would be supported by me and the US ambassador on the stage. The jewellery auction was organised my me and a couple of friends and despite having a short lead in time everything was ready on the night.

It was great that the US ambassador could come to the evening. She is an interesting woman with fantastic global connections. It was really nice of her to spend so much time with the 5 CCH auctioneers getting to know them. It was also great of her to warm up the small gathering and kick start the auction so well. Despite large publicity, including a full page in the Phnom Penh Post, the crowd was select but we hoped committed buyers! See:

The children were fantastic at auctioning and getting the crowd to part with their money!

CCH auctioneers, CCH director, Soka with his wife Dany and the US ambassador.

A Khmer artist, "Sata", made some art installations for us to display the jewellery pieces on.... made out of carrier bags to highlight the dump.
One of the CCH students above who was excellent at auctioning the pieces and the art display pieces.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

A village in Kandal

Yesterday we returned to the village where some of the children from CCH come from in Kandal - A province about an hour from Phnom Penh. We took one of my favourite tuk tuk drivers, Dara, who is a good driver and is friendly but his tuk tuk goes about the pace of a snail.

First we headed to CCH to pick up four of the students who were from that area so they could return and see their families. After picking up some sweets for the children and fruit we started the slow journey which involved a road traffic accident where a woman (too fast and on the wrong side of the road) decided to clip the back of our tuk tuk. This sent her flying and sprawling on the floor. In true Cambodian style Dara didn't even flinch and kept driving. We could see her get up and she was OK although perhaps her pride was dented.

Its the dry/hot season no and so the roads are covered in dust which sticks to you and covers you in a grimy film. About an hour and a half later down bumpy roads we arrived at the village covered in filth.

Apparently the children had remembered me from the last time and were looking forward to us arriving. They wanted to practise their English. At first the children were so shy but after a play around with the camera and showing their pictures and getting the pictures out from last time there was no holding them back - "Mister, som tort moi" - [Umm that means Madam(!) please one photo] so there were a lot of pictures to be taken.

We also looked at their English text book and I taught colours in English while they taught me colours in Khmer. A delicious lunch had been prepared, rice, chicken, mango, green beans and pork - it was some of the tastiest traditional Khmer food I have tasted.
Then we went for a walk in the boiling hot rice fields - they were burning off the rice and so in addition to the searing heat of the sun we contended with fires and smoke as well!
Some of the kids took a dip in a muddy puddle and we walked to the village well - about half a kilometer from the village.
Then I got a ride in my first ox cart which was going to the well too! Extremely bumpy... but vulnerable to bumps as we hit a large one and the ox and cart split apart. I decided to get out then.

After observing some huge red ants (yummy apparently) we headed back to the village just as the ice cream man was arriving playing the Lambada (the ice cream man tune here) and got the children ice creams. At 200 riel (about 5p) each it was a bargain as the final sum was about $1.50 to get the whole of village children an ice cream. That said, to a farmer in the village its a lot of money.

One mother of a child from CCH have me flowers to say thank you for bringing the CCH students to see their families and then we waved goodbye and the tuk tuk took us home slowly - we arrived back filthy but thankfully in one piece. This was our first goodbye to people in Cambodia before we leave. Still we will see them in September when we return for a holiday....