15.06.2012 - 07.07.2012
I apologise that there hasn’t been a blog in quite a while – I have infact written this blog twice already over the last couple of weeks, on both occasions it was a witty, insightful, moving piece of writing which probably would have won prizes, however due to technical issues I’ve lost both versions of this excellent blog and have had to start again. Therefore I’m really bored of writing it now, but for anyone who's interested in what I was up to for my month in Cambodia, here is part one:
The majority of my time was spent volunteering in Takeo at a place called New Futures Organisation (NFO), and despite my initial thoughts that I'd have a bit more time to myself here to write blogs etc, I've was so busy and had such an amazing time I didn't get a single free moment to do anything of the sort.
Arriving Takeo I felt million miles away from the backpack trail I’d become used to, this provincial town a couple of hours from the capitol doesn't see many tourists. NFO is a charity which runs an orphanage for around 50 orphaned or abused kids, runs two local village schools as well as a whole host of other community work, please check out their website for more info www.newfuturesorganisation.com. I wasn't too sure what to expect when I arrived but it probably wasn't the number of other volunteers already there, mostly British but also a few Ausies and Kiwis, at one point there were 22 of us. Accommodation for the volunteers was in a big communal house in Takeo town, about 2km from the orphanage, for most of the time I was sharing with GP Luke from the Wirral.
Takeo is like a different world compared to home: people still use horse and cart for transporting goods, as well as ancient 100cc motorbikes which pull huge trailers, cars are pretty uncommon. For me transport was by rickety old push bike which had no brakes, no gears and usually at least one flat tyre. I can honestly say it is teh friendliest place I've ever been, on average I wpould say hello about 100 times a kids and adults alike delighted in shouting to you as you cycle past. There are no supermarkets in Takeo, instead most things can be bought at the market, my first visit to which was an experience. Walking through the clothes and fruit section was typical of any Asian market, then a smell hit me and as I looked down a huge rat ran past, chased by a small child. When I looked up again I realised I was in the meat section - a vast expanse of stalls with EVERY conceivable part of the pigs and cows laid out all around. Grim little anecdote if you are veggie, at night the screeches of pigs being slaughtered ready for market the next morning would ring out for all to hear, there's no humane technology here so a cut to the throat is followed by about 30 seconds of hideous squealing per pig.
Anyway, back to the reason I was in Takeo which was to teach English. There are several opportunities for volunteers who want to teach, you can help with additional lessons for the orphanage kids, there's also the local police and monks as well as the remote village schools which is what I chose to do. Little Po school is about 8km outside Takeo, set up by NFO it provides invaluable free English education to the local kids who can't afford private school. There are over 200 students from infants up to 13 years old, only one classroom, and only one teacher, a really inspirational young man called Tiem. When there are no volunteers he teaches all 200+ kids together, so having people to help makes a massive difference. Like many of the kids, he works in the rice paddies when not at school. To say that some of the kids have virtually nothing isn't much of an understatement, many would wear the same ripped T-shirt every day, plastic bags are common as school bags, most of the houses in the village are wooden huts which use car batteries for power and the village itself doesn't have a single paved road or car. Infact with all the livestock roaming free everywhere it kind of made me think of what an English village would probably been like in the middle ages.
On my first day I expected to maybe watch and learn but instead was thrown straight in for my first ever experience of teaching. I was given a class of 30 aged from 10-13, a white board and marker, and was sent to the nearby temple and a makeshift classroom in an open pagoda. After what I'll admit was probably a very shaky start I must have recalled some inspiration from my early school days and I can honestly say I enjoyed every minute of teaching thereafter, it's impossible not to when the kids are so energetic and eager to learn. Much singing, dancing and interactive games (along with some actual teaching) made up my lessons. However I don't think I’m a natural born teacher, I had to put in a huge amount of prep before school each day to ensure the class didn't fall into anarchy (which I’m ashamed to admit happened the one time I tried to teach with a hangover and no lesson plan).
So for three weeks I did my very best to teach my 30 students (and on some occasions when I was the only volunteer it was 90 kids in my class!) as much as I could to improve their English skills, and to pass on a little bit of a Lancashire accent too. It’s amazing the bond you make in such a short space of time, when it came to my final day I was bowled over by the send off I got from the entire school – letters and drawing from every pupil telling me how handsome I am, how good a teacher I am, and asking that I never forget them.
During the weeks in Takeo I settled into a daily routine for the first time while travelling. Mornings would start with breakfast at the market, followed by my preparations for school and a trip to the photocopy shop to get any materials I needed. Then I’d cycle the beautifully scenic 8km out to school (luckily the kids were always keen to help me cool down by fanning me with their exercise books when I arrived). Three hours of teaching with a break for an iced coffee half way through, then back on the bike and usually straight on to the orphanage, stopping for a refreshing fruit shake en-route. At the orphanage I’d have to muster some more energy to play football, wrestling or whatever physically exhausting activity the kids wanted. After dinner most volunteers would congregate on the balcony for a drink or two or lots. There isn’t much night life in Takeo, infact there is a curfew at 11pm, so the only thing to do is go to a small karaoke place nearby (which also double as a brothel for locals!). I’m not usually a big fan of karaoke but after drinking games involving the local ‘Super Whisky’ which cost 50p a bottle, and with large a group of newfound friends, a great time was had belting out the limited selection of classic tunes. Karaoke was so good that we ended up going 5 times while I was there.
Weekends were a bit different as there's no school. I'd try to get to the orphanage for a while each day but other than that it was pretty much free time. Still we managed to keep busy. My favourite day had to be the pool party and BBQ day. It started with all the orphanage kids coming round to play in the swimming pool (to give a bit of context, one of the local school teachers who was there had never in his life seen a swimming pool before that day). Then we cooked a huge amount of food on a BBQ before starting various drinking games (the orphanage kids had gone home by this point) including Pictionary (don't knock it till you've tried it), then karaoke, then a late night viewing of the euro quarter final (the only slight down side being that England lost).
Another fantastic day was when nine volunteers took 100 local school kids on a day trip to Angkor Borie, the oldest temple in Cambodia. Luckily health and safety regulations don't apply here as we travelled up river by chartered boat (usually used for transporting bricks so absolutely no safety equipment onboard). The best part of the day was the 1km walk from boat to temple, just after getting off the boat the heavens opened turning the mud path into a mud bath and ensured just about everyone got covered in mud (think Glastonbury on the wettest years).
A few other little anecdotes from my time in Takeo:
• In addition to the rat at the market I had encounters with several others - one jumped out of the oven at me and proceeded to run around the kitchen for a while causing quite a lot of havoc. On another occasion, after a football match / mud fight at the orphanage the kids went for a swim in the murky pond to clean off, not wanting to be shown up the volunteers who'd been playing also jumped in, only to turn around a see a giant rat settling out of the water (looking back there were probably snakes and assorts in there, not to mention a few deadly diseases). And finally on the rat front, saw some locals carrying a bag full of skinned rats ready to be cooked.
• On the snake and spider front, only saw one live snake, it was quite a small chap who was slithering across the road as I cycled past, then I swear it jumped at Luke as he cycled past (luckily it didn’t manage to strike him with its deadly venom (not sure if it was actually poisonous but it’s more dramatic to presume it was). The spiders were more prevalent, in total there were 5 spottings, with the smallest being the size of a child’s hand and the biggest the size of a large man’s hand (make that a hairy large man’s hand as the spider was very hairy).
• 5 people is still the most I’ve seen on a single motorbike (seen in Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia). However it was quite funny to see three volunteers and a broken bike plus the driver all on one moto.
• I have now tried a few varieties of bugs, in addition to the one I tried in Bangkok, I’ve now had a couple sautéed in chilli and lemongrass which was a big improvement. Stopped short of trying dog!
• For my birthday I had a great night out in Kampot, although the stream of happy hour bars did take their toll on me. En-route to Kampot my bus curse continued – packed into a tiny minivan with 12 other people and 4 motorbikes, we ran out of petrol not once but twice.
So incase you didn’t get the jist, I had an amazing three and a bit weeks volunteering in Cambodia. I met some fantastic people and made loads of new friends who I hope to stay in touch with. NFO is an amazing organisation and I urge you to check out their website and make a donation if you can because I’ve seen just how valuable the work is that they do. Unlike many organisations which charge you huge sums of money to volunteer, NFO don’t ask for anything more than the cost of registering you and completing the relevant legalities, although most volunteers happily make a donation before leaving or end up sponsoring a child. The teaching has been one of the best experiences of my life, even if I’ve not discovered a new career path, the experience of meeting and bonding with the kids is truly inspirational. My only regret is that I hadn’t scheduled more time to stay longer, but I think I will definitely be going back in the future.