04/02/2013 - 02/03/2013 34 °C
(Excuse the long entry but this covers 4 weeks)
After Bangkok it was time to enter the 6th country on my travels, Cambodia. It was also here that I chose to spend 4 weeks volunteering at a school in the coastal city of Sihanoukville. In previous months I had heard mixed things about the country, mainly that the people are nice but it can be very dangerous. I couldn't wait to settle down and find out for myself.
Upon crossing the border (and paying a fine for overstaying my Thai visa - naughty me) I found that I had missed the last minibus but a friendly chap was all too keen to call in his friend who would drive me where I wanted. Alarm bells were ringing and when the taxi appeared it was a regular unmarked private vehicle. After negotiating the price down and asking to the remaining half on arrival I hesitantly entered the vehicle alone. The next 10 minutes were spent trying to ingratiate myself to the driver in the hope that he wouldn't dump me in the middle of nowhere with just the clothes on my back. At this point the car filled with a Thai man and a further 2 tourists and my fears subsided. It turned out that the driver was just a nice guy doing his job - who would have guessed?
Entering Sihanoukville I realised that had I not been volunteering I would have only spent 2 nights there max. It's main attractions for the casual tourist are drinking, lying on the beach and the many western style cafes/bars. As a result the typical visitor is either fat, white and middle aged or a flourescant vest wearing douchebag (trying not to generalise here). The people who kept me sane were the locals. I have to say that Cambodians must be the happiest, friendliest and cheekiest nation of people I've ever encountered. Cambodians I met through the school and in casual encounters were generous with smiles and I felt very welcome. The ability to laugh at yourself is certainly required as they are not shy of teasing or highlighting any sore points you might have. Apparently I have a long head and small ears???
During my stay here I volunteered at a school for poor and 'at risk' children called 'Let Us Create' or CCPP for short, after it's former name of the Cambodia Children's Painting Project. The project aims to teach children of all ages English and art skills while providing a safe environment in which they can receive food and health support that they don't get at home. Finished artworks are then sold in the school's shop with proceeds coming back to help those in need. Please check out the Let Us Create Facebook page for more details.
(All photos in this blog entry are taken from the Facebook page due to the necessary restrictions surrounding child safety)
It was an absolutely brilliant experience working with the children. They have a real desire to learn and attend school, appreciate the value it has and nearly always arrive with a beaming smile. This is all the more outstanding when you see what kind of home life these children have. Sharing a bed with your whole family and living in what is really just a wooden shack is common among the children. Having 1 or no parents is not unusual. Going on a home visit and learning about their lives really puts things in perspective. The school also undertakes social care work - regularly meeting high risk families, giving rice and paying rent where necessary. While I have to admit that the town and volunteer experience weren't what I thought they would be, seeing the needs of the kids and the good work occurring I was determined to make a difference for them in whatever I could achieve in 4 weeks.
This really was the hottest place I've been to so far. Scorching heat every day and working most the day in an air-con and fan-less school meant at least 3 showers a day were in order. The volunteer house only had cold showers but these were always welcome.
One highlight activity of my time here was participating in a Khmer cookery class where I made traditional dishes such as a fish amok (coconut based curry) and lok lak (beef in a flavoursome tomato sauce). These 2 dishes will go superbly amongst my current repertoire of stir fry chicken, spaghetti bolognaise and oven pizza.
One weekend the school took part in the annual city carnival where various organisations would transform trucks into floats based on a certain theme. This year it was road safety and HIV awareness! Hence our slogan: Always wear a helmet. Our truck went with a 'Stop' and 'Go' theme with 2 big hands as the indicator.
By the end of the 4 weeks I was really sad to say goodbye to the kids and the great people I'd met in my first stop in Cambodia. It was also quite exhausting trying to maintain a 6 day work schedule and busy nightlife so moving on was very much welcomed by my body. It felt very strange getting back into the routine of finding accommodation and booking buses. Routines are very easy to get into. When I started travelling I felt the way of life came quite naturally to me and when settled down for 4 weeks I felt the way of laziness was just as becoming.