Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Welcome to my house!

My new home is a very fine house, undoubtedly one of the most desirable in Thmar Pouk village.

Situated mercifully away from the dusty main road (The North Circular), it’s conveniently located for local amenities such as the sprinkling of fruit & bucket stalls (Oxford Street) and the temple by the water (St Paul’s).

Designer wares are a short tube ride to the new market (Regent Street), whilst a gentle stroll along my road (Mayfair) takes you to the village entertainment district / cafe (Soho). Just round the corner is the reason I’m here, the slightly ramshackle health centre / hospital (Imperial College).

My new home is a traditional-style Cambodian ‘house on stilts’, though thankfully the lower floor and outside area are occupied by my hosts, the Da family, not the usual cows, pigs and hens. The matriarch and business-lady is Chhean, supported by her husband Sophal, the commune chief. Their three smiley daughters, Sreyeam, Isean and Inan are already booked in as my future English language students.

Downstairs at the back is my kitchen. Whilst lacking the modern conveniences of a fridge, oven or washing machine, it does boast an ice box, gas ring and tap, plus a metal food cupboard – which comes complete with state of the art anti-ant protection system (the cupboard legs stand in water-filled plastic bottles).

The bathroom is also at ground level, so I descend bleary-eyed each morning to a step, step, crunch soundtrack - there is rarely electricity early on, so sadly various poor creatures are crushed daily by my unseeing feet.

Once there, flushing the toilet with the bucket is good morning exercise, and the cold shower is a bracing start (the water is chilly in the morning, though of course by the time you want cooling at the end of a hot day the sun has warmed it nicely). And I won’t run short of water – the bathroom comes complete with a special mosquito-breeding reserve, which also doubles as a water storage tank.

Upstairs is lovely – off the large wooden-floored lounge is my bedroom, a spare for visiting guests (form an orderly queue), and the best bit of all, my balcony. From here I watch the morning procession of tractors, monks and dogs, safe in my protective breakfast bubble of bread, bananas and BBC World Service. This would also be a great place to watch the sun go down, if it wasn’t for the noise - Thmar Pouk in the evening is super-woofer central, thanks to booming speakers or howling dogs (apparently tolerated as they scare off ghosts; this may explain the music as well).

Tempted? There’s no postal delivery system in Cambodia (any mail for volunteers has to go to VSO’s post office box in Phnom Penh), so there’s little call for detailed addresses – but you’ll find me easily enough at Oly’s house, Thmar Pouk Commune, Thmar PoukVillage, Thmar Pouk District in Banteay Meanchay Province, Cambodia.

Look forward to seeing you soon!

Friday, December 11, 2009

Birthday Tea!

My second day in Thmar Pouk, December 8th, was my birthday.

Looking around my bare-walled house I decided I needed birthday treat – I would make myself... a NICE CUP OF TEA! Shouldn’t be difficult?

a) Tea bags. Hah! Bought them up from Phnom Penh.

b) Milk. Get that already too – this is going to be easy!

c) Water. Hmmm, stuff from the tap is already tea colour.

d) Speak to landlord in stuttering k’mai - he disappears.

e) Buy small bottle of water from stall opposite, but drink it down as thirsty.

f) Landlord reappears with big bottle of water – we’re in business!

g) Pan. The kitchen’s bare – a simple trip to the market?

h) Where’s the market? More faltering khmer. I think I’m being told there’s one round the corner

i) There is fruit and veg nearby, but I can’t seem to find the John Lewis kitchenware stall...

j) Anywhere else? Ask again – ahh, the *new* market is what I need – just a couple of kilometres away

k) How to get there? Has to be a first outing on my ‘new’ moto – please let it work / let there be enough petrol / let me find the way / let it be open

l) How much? Having got there and found an aluminium pan. I guess the Le Creuset’s were all sold out. Is aluminium poisonous? Anyway, I’m desperate to buy – but how much is it? “200”. 200? Eventually work out this is Thai baat – simply multiply by 100 to get 20,000 Cambodian riel, divide by 4,000 to get $5, and tweak a little to give you 3 or 4 quid. Brain aches too much to haggle. Time to go home for tea!

m) Gas. Grrrr. There’s a bottle but it’s empty.

n) Another begging trip to landlord, who disappears again.

o) Eventually someone appears with a new bottle (for a price).

p) Mug. Yep that’s me – why didn’t I think of getting something to drink it out of?

q) Never mind, just needs a little trip to the new market’s Selfridges bone china outlet stall.

r) Return with a couple of slightly grubby half pint glasses, soon polished up.

s) Result. It’s all come together at last: boil the clean water in the shiny pan using the new gas, pour over tea bag in new glass, add milk to taste, and I have a nice cup of birthday


Now, a slice of cake perhaps?

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Home Stay!

Pha is 58, looks like a weathered 68, but bounds up the wobbly ladder to his wooden house-on-stilts like a sprightly 18 year old.

Inside is surprisingly spacious – essentially one big room, with a cooking area at the far end and a sleeping section to one side. The first thing that strikes me (apart from the low beam above the entrance) is the flooring – planks of wood, but unlike floorboards I know, these springy strips are only 10cm wide, with a good 1cm gap between each one, so you can see right down to the ground area below. It’s only as the day hots up that I appreciate the way this allows air to circulate – and that the gap is ideal for rolling marbles, and for disposing of cold tea and fag ends!

Pha introduces me to the family – as far as my stuttering Cambodian tells me, he and Veum are the grandparents, and one of their daughters Payap also lives there with her husband and sons, the well-mannered and slightly shy 12 year old Botay, and the cheeky showman Titao, half his age but twice the volume!

I’m not sure though - it’s all rather fluid, how I imagine a northern English terrace in the 1960s, with kids and adults popping in and out as they like and the parenting a shared task between all the adults and the older children. I think the sparky 6 year old Rizar actually lives next door, but spends most of her time with us, making good use of the pens and paper I’d brought as a gift – though she seems slightly exasperated with my lack of skill in writing the khmer alphabet.

Food is a nice surprise – fortunately VSO tipped off the families in advance that many of the volunteers on the homestay are veggie, so I’m presented with a delicious feast of rice, tofu with beansprouts, a bowl of green oniony things and some red spicy sauce – horror stories of pig’s feet and cow’s insides abate. I eat on the floor, in the middle of the room. The family watch me, then retreat to the floor of the kitchen, presumably to discreetly tuck into fishier fare. Pha stays back to fortify me with copious glasses of black tea – he may not realise just how much that homely touch was appreciated.

After lunch is time for sleeping of course, so I do as the locals and bed down on a slightly hard wicker mat for a couple of hours of shut-eye. It’s a bit hot though, and I’m not quite at home enough to strip off my rapidly dampening t-shirt. Pha’s on the case again though, popping up with a brand new electric fan (I say brand new as it was still in its plastic wrapping, but I think Cambodians like to keep things this way as long as possible – either way, it does the job perfectly).

In the afternoon, Pha takes me and Botay for a manly walk in the fields. His placid face becomes animated as he jabs at the worms eating the wheat crop and prods the parched paddy field where the irrigation river has run dry. I think he’s doing ok though – he’s very proud of his 7 cows, which must make him well off around here. And I’m happy – in the middle of the fields is an overgrown area with red and white posts at each end - the nearest I’ve seen to a football pitch yet!

Later I go for a walk myself to watch the sun set over the Mekong. With such a beautiful view, I’m surprised that the village’s attention faces away from it towards the rice fields. Maybe admiring the scenery is a luxury afforded only to visitors, though the men in the family still wax lyrical about the setting as they pass my camera round later on.

The evening food gets more interesting: as Veum relieves the local women of their 100 riel notes at cards downstairs, the men tuck into what looks like a bucket of raw turnips, complete with clods of earth. Once the muck is peeled off, however, the white roots are surprisingly tasty, especially when liberally smeared with sweet brown gloop which I’m assured is palm syrup – you heard it here first.

And so to bed – after all, it’s 8pm already. So it’s back down on my straw mat, hoping my barbie-pink mosquito net will deter the various beasties who are already circling with intent.

The cock crows at 6 in the morning, a fine traditional countryside awakening – if the howling dogs hadn’t been at it since 4am. Still, I’ve had a good 8 hours sleep, so feel fine. Pha chats to me a little – it doesn't take me long to ask if he speaks English (he doesn't), but eventually it transpires he knows some French – wish he’d told me earlier! Whatever the language, I must speak a little too much (or too close), as he abruptly marches me to the downstairs bathtub-room making rigourous teeth-cleaning gestures. I assume my oral hygiene is his concern, though on reappearing he presents me with a heavily-sugared coffee – who am I to reason why?

And that’s it – 24 hours in the home of a Cambodian family, a fascinating insight for me and great preparation for the move to my new home in the rural north-west next week. That's was it was like for me - I wonder what they made of it all?

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Sport in Cambodia - anyone for flipflop petanque?

So what do Cambodians do for sport then?

Most people here work in the ricefields all day, so sport is probably a low priority. However, I often hear Cambodians described as ‘playful’, and I’ve already witnessed a fair bit of jocular jaunts and rollicking recreation...

Flip-flops are the main ingredient of the most inventive sports I’ve seen here – being thrown, kicked, kept in the air and generally not worn on the feet. Groups of guys also play a ‘keepy uppy’ game (sepak takraw) – not usually with a football, but rather using a strange contraption in the shape of a shuttle-cock with a spring-loaded base. Credit is given not just for keeping it in the air, but also the artfulness of the flick, using the back of the heel or sole of the shoe (or flip flop).

In practice, this seems more played than football – I’ve seen surprisingly few pagoda pitches. However, as with pretty much every country in the world, footy is still the top game, and the easiest common denominator for building (male) conversations. If, like me, you can say you come from Manchester, that helps a lot – though insisting you’re an Oldham Athletic fan isn’t so clever.

Surprisingly, volleyball seems to be the most popular ‘traditional’ sport, attracting sizeable crowds - though they seem less interested in serves and smashes than a spot of gambling. There are pitches on bits of waste ground in most towns and villages, and now the rainy season is over, makeshift courts are also promised on the sandy riverbanks – have I really chanced across a hotbed of beach volleyball?

The most fun sport I’ve seen so far is the al fresco keep fit classes in Kampong Cham, just north of Phnom Penh. Against the gentle backdrop of the Mekong river at dusk, giant speakers pump out dancy music, a young guy stands on a platform gyrating to a keep-fit routine, and before you know it there’s a lycra-mob mirroring every stretch and thrust. I will join them just as soon as I’m fitted for my pyjama-leotard.

As this is Asia, I was expecting to see martial arts, particularly at the gym near our language school. However, it actually specialises in body building - isn’t there something a bit wrong about the image of a muscle-bound Cambodian? On a run round Phnom Penh last week there were also a good number of thai chi-ers – it was an arresting sight as they saluted the sun as it rose over the river at dawn. Cambodians also seem to spend hours glued to thai or k’mai boxing on tv - generally when they’re meant to be serving me in their shop or hotel.

The best sport here has got to be cycling – lots of Cambodians use bikes, though usually for practical rather than sporting reasons. But it’s a wonderful way not only to exercise but also to see the luscious (and flat, and generally car-free) Cambodian countryside.

Apart from that there’s also a smattering of badminton between girls or siblings on the pavements at dusk, plenty of rowing during water festival season, and the particularly popular sport of parking Lexus cars in the middle of basketball courts.

So there’s a plenty here to keep me active – my first plan is to sign up for a 10k run in a couple of weeks time. It’ll be a bit warm, but as the route winds through the majestic lost temples at Angkor Wat at sunrise, I think I’ll manage.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

A glimpse of what's to come: military funding, static ambulances, external fixators

Health is the key focus of my time in Cambodia. Over the last week I've had the chance to visit a few facilities in NW Cambodia, talk with patients and staff, and view first-hand some of the challenges which await me...

On arrival in the remote Banteay Meanchey province it's clear this is a long way from the bustling metropolis of Phnom Penh, or indeed the 'khmer lite' of Siem Reap. This is the 'real Cambodia': poor, underdeveloped, and very rural - challenging territory indeed.

The dirt road north is bumpy, hazards include wandering herds of oxen and water buffalo, and the dust is choking - though I shouldn't complain as come the wet season it's an impassable mudbath. Happily tarmac is promised which will greatly improve access for the people here; sadly for me it's unlikely to be finished in the next couple of years.

An hour north of the regional town of Sisophon, the sleepy rural village of Thmar Pouk lies on the watery plains stretching to the Thai border. This is the remote north-western corner of Cambodia, and the referral hospital here will be my main base for the next two years.

The hospital here is best described as 'basic' - a huddle of low-lying buildings with stark wards and sparse support facilities, built around a volleyball pitch and outdoor cooking area. Unexpectedly, the largest group of patients have respiratory conditions. I was told things are improving here, but it still looks pretty rudimentary - no consistent water or electricity supply, wards certainly not modern, spacious or particularly clean (think 'ïnfection control nightmare'), and basics such as drugs in pretty short supply.

On the positive side, there is a well-respected lead doctor, and already they have a promise of funding for a much-needed paediatric ward, so one of my jobs is to make sure this actually gets built. Interestingly, the money is coming from the US military - why would that be?

On the way back to Sisophon is the village health centre at Svay Chek, another eye-opener. Cleanliness here is even more of a challenge, and the IT infrastructure is limited to a rather imposing old Olivetti typewriter. However, there are trained midwives delivering babies here, and a TB outreach programme - there's definitely hope.

Part of my role will be to help improve the system for referring patients between local health centres and hospitals. Mercifully, I will be encouraging people to access care rather than trying to limit it, as I was having to do back in the UK. The chief explained that a well-meaning Christian group in Thailand donated the centre's ambulance to help transfer patients, but there was no provision for diesel - so unless patients can pay for fuel they stay where they are.

In fact, there was a sobering theme of well-intentioned but useless help - the Japanese had funded the health centre's water supply, but the cheap tank didn't work properly. Meanwhile the kindly-donated lab equipment sits firmly in its box as there's insufficient electricity to run it.

In contrast, we travelled south of Sisophon to the new flagship hospital at Mongkol Borei, an altogether more successful gift from the people of Japan. Whatever the motives for the donation, it's clear why this is where visiting dignitaries are directed. Beyond the bright signs and topiered hedges are shiny new wards and equipment, and also impressive systems such as health records and plans to introduce networked health information - good luck with that...

Not that it's perfect - away from the gleaming front, we wandered round the side of a stagnant pool to the deserted ophthalmic ward, and on to the shabby children's unit, with roof but no walls, rickety beds pushed tightly together, all kids on the ubiquitous drips, and toilets firmly locked (presumably to keep them clean).

Overall, it's clear some things will take some getting used to. Alison, my nursing advisor colleague, noted how few nurses there were - partly, it would seem, as all personal care such as feeding, washing, and emotional support is provided by family members - or if not possible, neighbours, or the gardener - a rather different approach from what we are used to.

One story in particular revealed some of the challenges ahead. The orthopaedic ward was full of young lads smashed up either on the roads or in the fields (more to come on road and occupational safety I'm sure!). Several had impressive bits of mechano-like metalwork sticking out of them ('external fixators'), keeping the bones in the right place. Most of the guys were recovering well, so we asked why they stayed in hospital. The doctor explained that they couldn't afford to pay the deposit on the kit so needed to stay - otherwise unscrupulous private clinics would remove and sell them on, leaving no equipment for future patients.

Altogether a fascinating week - I think I'm going to be busy.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Water Festival in Phnom Penh

Cambodians take their public holidays very seriously (all 24 of them), and none more so than the annual water festival.

The Bonn Om Tuk festival celebrates the natural phenomenon of the Tonle Sap river actually reversing its flow due to pressure of water at the end of the rainy season. Or perhaps it celebrates the November full moon. Or the beginning of the fishing season? Whatever it is that is celebrated, it’s certainly done in style, with a bumper 4 day holiday.

The highlight of the festival is the spectacular boats racing through Phnom Penh – to see them from the faded colonial charm of the Foreign Correspondents Club of Cambodia is quite something.

VSO, however, went one better, and actually crewed a dashingly colourful dragon boat, allowing 40 of us to experience it from on (at times nearly in) the water - a truly memorable, if sometimes amusingly chaotic experience.

Our crew of volunteers – bolstered by a few brave k’mai colleagues - produced a heroic effort. In fact, our rhythmic chants of ‘moi, pi, moi–pi-moi’ fused with the tactical wizardry of our captain led us to clinch a remarkable victory over our astounded Cambodian competitors.

Well, sort of – the current was actually so strong that we couldn’t even get far enough up the river to the official start point, so were given special permission to start halfway down. We were then overtaken not only by the boat we were racing against, but also both boats in the next race. We drifted into a far-off shore, without quite making it between the two finishing line marker boats.

Notwithstanding the minor details of the start, middle and end, all went remarkably well – it was great fun for us, even more so for our Cambodian hosts – a boat-full of ridiculous barraing westerners, sporting bizarre lifejackets and pointedly failing to keep time must have made it difficult even for the watching King of Cambodia to keep a straight face.

It was all about the taking part of course, and the whole event reflected very well indeed on VSO –the only overseas organisation to participate, we got great publicity in the Phnom Penh Post, raised over$1000 for and, and made plenty of friends along the way.

The boat race is also a great excuse for the whole city to party, with revelers thronging the streets of Phnom Penh. Dancing into the early hours on the roof terrace of the Tamarind, we were treated to some star DJing from the present health advisor whose shoes I fill from next month – an altogether better performance on the decks than earlier in the afternoon...

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Let's speak Khmer!

Lining the banks of the great Mekong river at the southern end of the impressive new Japanese-funded Kizuma bridge, the quiet town of Kampong Cham, 3 hours north of Phnom Penh, will be my base for the next 8 weeks.

My task here is to learn to speak Khmer (or actually K’mai). I will need this to be able to communicate once I start work in December, as few if any people will speak English (or French for that matter) where I’m going.

This is mainly as I’ll be at a hospital in the remote Banchay Meachay province of NW Cambodia, which by all accounts will not be a hotbed of educated English speakers (though rumour has it there may be some French-educated doctors if I get really stuck). The lack of even French speakers is also of course a legacy of the brutal Khmer Rouge era, when such ‘intellectuals’ were prime targets to be killed.

After a week of lessons I confess I’m finding it hard work. I haven’t studied this intensively for years - and the heat here really isn’t conducive to studying the finer points of adjectival verbs.

Not that I can complain: our teacher Dara is inspirational, not only through his energetic teaching, but even more as someone who survived the killing fields and learned English during 10 years in a Thai refugee camp. Given his history, his patience and constant good humour is impressive, not to mention humbling.

K’mai is not exactly easy for us barraing (westerners). For a start it has 33 consonants and no fewer than 23 vowels – a few more than ‘a e i o u’! Thankfully we’re not even attempting to learn the written language, which uses a huge and baffling alphabet of hieroglyphics.

It’s also difficult just because there is seldom any reference point for learning words – they just don’t sound like anything else, so are difficult to remember. So you have to be inventive: a rabbit-thief eating by the water in the Lake district gives me ‘po-cha-ni-yah-taan’ (poacher near tarn) so I can try to remember the word for ‘restaurant’. I may not be eating out too often.

On the other hand there are many up-sides – no tenses, no plurals, no genders and no tonality (by which I understand that a word doesn’t magically change meaning if your voice goes up at the end or something – linguists can correct me on that one).

And there are also some lovely words in K’mai. I find a beautiful simplicity in the verb to like (cho-chet – ‘to enter the heart’) and in bed-, bath- and dining-rooms (‘sleep-‘, water-‘ and ‘eat-rice’-rooms). Not to mention lashings of bongs, dongs and pongs to keep me amused.

The most useful phrase of all, I hope, will be ‘no problem’: ot pan-ya-haa!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Getting serious: Tuol Sleng genocide museum

Whenever I mention C
ambodia to anyone their immediate reference point is the killing fields and the Khmer Rouge. I hope in time this beautiful country will become famous for other, more positive things, but for now it still seems to underpin everything that happens here.

I need to learn about that terrible period in the history of this country (and the world), so as a start I visited the Tuol Sleng genocide museum at the infamous ‘S.21’ building in central Phnom Penh. Not surprisingly, it’s intensely thought-provoking, but pretty grim.

Some facts:

· During the ‘killing fields’ regime of Pol Pot (1975-1978), the school was used as a prison camp, for detaining, torchuring and killing inmates

· S.21 (Security office 21) was reserved for the educated or those who posed a ‘special threat’ - basically anyone the regime didn’t like, including increasing numbers of Khmer Rouge activists themselves towards the end of the regime

· There are chillingly detailed records about the 13,000+ people killed in S21; only 7 inmates ever survived

· Many, many more were killed in the Cambodian countryside by the Khmer Rouge, by weapons, landmines, disease or hunger – estimates range from 1,000,000 to 2,000,000 (more on that in the future I’m sure)

Some impressions:

· S21 is basically an ordinary school, built around two sides of an incongruously pleasant lawn with blossoming trees.

· There are rooms of seemingly-endless portrait photographs of inmates. The images are haunting: most look impassive, some even seeming to half-smile, whereas I’d assumed they would look scared or even defiant - I wondered if they had any idea what was going to happen to them

· Classroom after classroom had been transformed into torture chambers – big rooms with just a single iron bed in the middle, often with various gruesome implements still in place

· There were also pictures of bodies taken by the liberating Vietnamese army, still strapped to the beds with great pools of blood below. The photos were graphic, but the stark sight of the bed and implements was almost worse, leaving me to imagine the horrible details

· The prison rules seem to give an insight into the mindset of the captors – ones which stick in the mind are “Do nothing, sit still and wait for my orders” and “If you disobey you shall get either ten lashes or five shocks of electric discharge”. Oh and “When getting lashes or electrocution you must not cry at all”

· There were striking parallels with what I recently saw in Rwanda – not least the use of a place such as a school to commit such atrocities (too cruel anywhere)

And some questions:

· The same nagging question as I asked in Rwanda: how can this have happened in such a beautiful, friendly, peaceful country?

· Is it pedantic to ask whether this was actually, strictly-speaking, ‘genocide’ (there’s a long definition, but it’s basically trying to wipe out a race, hence the ‘gene’ root – was this actually the case here? Even if not, does that make it less bad?

· And a final, scary question: it happened here, so how can we be sure it won’t happen anywhere else?

There are a few photos at - I guess I hope your weekend was a little less interesting.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Culture shock

The most fun – and the most risky – part of running off to somewhere completely foreign has to be the colourful clash of cultures: the completely normal, unthought-about things I’m going to do which suddenly become rude or downright dangerous in the context of this strange land.

Now I’m no expert on Cambodia after a week or two, but I’ve already come across a few classics.
Is it good or bad, for example, to ask someone on the street where they are going? (good of course); to beckon with the palm up or down? (down you imbecile!).

And how would you know that traffic lights – and even the direction of roundabouts – are ‘merely suggestions’. Ignoring them doesn't seem to be a serious traffic offense, nor is driving at night without lights or even when drunk - but woe betide you if you commit the heinous crime of using front lights during the daytime. How are you meant to work that one out?

More intuitive to me is the pleasing notion here that the body flows from its most holy at the head to its most base at the feet. But would you have realised this means that it's seriously poor form to give a child a kindly pat on the head, and a major faux pas to reveal the soles of your feet to a monk?

My greatest worry so far is that it is impolite – not to mention seriously suggestive – to look a Cambodian woman in the eye. I suspect it’s more subtle that that, perhaps the delicate distinction between timely eye-lowering rather than a marginally overextended gaze, but the potential consequences of getting it wrong sure scare the monkeys out of me.

Such schoolboy errors could land a chap in serious hot water, not to mention a wedding band. Not that marrige ceremonies aren't great repositories for a country’s traditions - I’d love to see some here.

It could cost me though. For starters I’d need to get a new outfit, which would naturally be in anything but white (not for fear of clashing with the bride you’ll understand, but to avoid dressing in their colour of mourning). And then there’s the cash - to be returned to the happy couple in the invitation envelope. Whether or not I choose to attend. Now there’s a potential minefield.

And I haven’t even started to learn the language yet, so who knows what will be lost in translation? Though by my loose choice of metaphor at the end of the last paragraph I need to learn to select my words a little more carefully from now on.

Second thoughts?

Good news – in a sudden and unsignalled turnaround of which even Phnom Penn tuktuks would be proud, I’m now the most popular member of the party. Bad news is it came at a cost.

I am sharing a bedroom above the head office, which I now discover is the infamous ‘room A4’, usually reserved for volunteers who get sick. Conformist as ever, I now have a nasty chesty coughy cold thing.

Luckily the volunteers are a great bunch, drawn from a diverse range of countries – and all were touchingly attentive in their support for their new invalid.

The UK view was to drink water and take paracetamol, the Dutch to apply lashings of Vic-type paste. The Indians advised avoidance of phlegm-inducing bananas and any citrus fruits – plus a sneaky cigarette - as the recommended route to recovery.

Our Kenyan contingent suggested hot drinks and unspecified herbs may help. Unfortunately I didn’t get to consult the Philippinos. Aussies prescribe beer.

But I’m here to learn from my Cambodian hosts, so on today’s cycle-taxi tour of Phnom Penn I visited the big temple at Phnom Wat, and took care to splash myself liberally with monk-approved holy water.

This make me damper than usual, but I figured it exempted me from the alternative local approach, which seems to involve degrees of self-harm – either scratching my chest repeatedly with a coin, or 'cupping' the rim of a heated glass onto my back, burning the skin and producing a strong vacuum. This would probably work of course - the pain and discomfort would no doubt distract me from whinging about a mere runny nose.

So much choice – so much attention! But losing face is a big deal here so I couldn't favour one approach over another.

By 9pm I was tucked up in bed with a Lemsip.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

First Impressions

Two days in C
ambodia and I’m already the most unpopular member of the party - I slept all the way and completely avoided jetlag, most irritating for the other volunteers I’m sure.

If you don’t mind, an early intervention from pedant’s corner: the first ‘P’ in Phnom Penh is pronounced (apparently). So none of that knowing ‘nom pen’ nonsense please!

First impressions then? Well the immediate thing that hit me was the heat - the humidity really knocked me back. VSO staff kindly welcomed us with much-needed water, even though it was the temperature of an average cuppa!

Heavily loaded with 2 years of possessions each for a score of volunteers, we made our way to the VSO office. We drove on the right (French colonial heritage – more on that later), which contrasted from our short stop-over in Thailand.

Contrary to expectations the roads don’t seem particularly crazy. I guess some proper pavements wouldn’t go amiss, and crossing requires both assertiveness and slalom skills. There are loads of motorbikes of course, often laden with doors or dogs or extended family members (4 at a time is my best spot to date, but there’s time!), but actually driven much more slowly than say in London. Apparently it’s seriously bad karma to get angry - maybe Buddah has the answer to road rage?

Most of all Phnom Penh is seriously challenging my senses – already the sights of beautiful gold-topped temples contrasted with the beggers and glue-sniffers at the gate, the rotting rubbish nearly spoiled the delicious aroma of my street-cooked veggies and rice breakfast, and the sounds of traditional chanting soon gave way to lip-synking trannies on the bar at the Blue Chilli Club (sorry, no photos this time!).

So there’s blog entry number 1. I’m tired, a little culture-shocked, but feel really privileged to be here. I’m very keen to crack on with Khmer lessons next week, and really excited about my new life – wish me luck, and I might just keep on blogging...