This post is a consolidation of emails and notes I made while teaching English as a volunteer in a village just outside of Siem Reap, Cambodia, in June and July 2010
Saturday 5 June.
I got into Cambodia today. Seam Reap airport is small. In the airport I filled out the forms for a business visa, and they scanned my passport photo because I’d forgotten to bring a couple of spares with me. There was no one at customs to search my baggage, and people just left their customs declarations on a tray that’s marked for this purpose. It seemed strange to me. Outside I met Tom, from the agency that’s arranged my teaching placements here. We went in his car out of the airport and were soon on the road to the city.
One of the first things I noticed is the amount of broken bricks and masonry on the sides of the roads. It seems there’s a lot of construction going on, but there very slow to clean up afterwards. There are an enormous number of motor bikes on the road, as well as motorised tuktuks. We headed into town and get to my hotel. The place I’m in is nice. There is a swimming pool out the front, three computers in the lobby for guests to use, and the room has air conditioning, which you need here because it’s hot and sticky.
I decided to spend Saturday and Sunday just getting familiar with the town.
Tonight I went to the old market. It’s full of crowded stalls, vendors sitting on their benches next to stacks of vegetables and it smells really strongly of something I can’t identify: like mould or fermented something. Later on I learn the smell is from a fermented fish paste. Then I went for a walk around the town. Most of the buildings are only two storeys, and the town seems full of bars, restaurants and internet cafes. One of most important streets is Pub street. It runs east-west through the centre of town. At the end nearest my hotel is the X-Bar corner, so called because the top story is a bar with giant neon Xs on the roof. You can see them from three of four blocks away.
In the centre of town on a corner half way down Pub Street there is a bar called the Red Piano. Around the top of its second storey is a line of horizontal red fluorescent lighting tubes, so you can see it from three or four blocks in any direction. I’ve been told that people giving me directions will refer to these two corners, so I need to know them. The two streets opposite the Red Piano have a row of food stalls that spring up each night under canvas awnings. A meal of wokked vegatbles and white rice only costs me $1, and banana shakes cost 3,000 Real, which is only 75 cents. So the meal with two shakes only costs me only costs $2.50.
Saturday 7 June
I went to my school: the one I’ll be at in the mornings. The school principal’s younger brither, Dy, will drive me to school on his motor bike, and take me back for three dollars a day. The school turns out to be well outside the town: down a highway, down some more streets, past the children’s hospital and off onto dirt roads. Most of the roads have deep ditches on either is, sometimes up to 10 feet deep. When the rainy season comes, the water can fill up the ditches, rather than flooding people’s houses or the roads. We pass through some of the village around the school. People are living in thatched huts, with geese and hens wandering around the houses. People are asleep on hammocks. Brahmin cows are tethered by the side of the road. The road immediately outside the school has recently been remade with a red clay surface, and raised up a foot or so above the surrounding land level. This newly made road runs off at a right angle to the school to connect with a made road. The American charity that made the school has paid for the road to be made so the kids can get to school and the village can operate normally and get goods in and out in the rainy season without their access being washed away or reduced to a trail of impassable mud.
The motor ride makes a bit uncomfortable: I have bought boots with steel capped toes in case I come off, and tom has helped me buy a motor bike helmet for $16.
At the school I met the Principal, Sarin and had a look around. The school is built in hollow rectangular U shape. The middle of the U is the playground. In the centre of the cross-bar of the U there is an administration building consisting of one room, which doubles as the library. On the either side of that are two classrooms, each separate to the admin building. They are painted in tow-tone: a deep orangey pink up to about four feet off the floor, and then a paler shade of pink above that. The roofs are corrugated Iron. There are steel bars on the windows and the windows have iron shutters painted black. The two long sections of the U shape are each made up of longer buildings with two classrooms on each, making six classrooms in total.
Friday 11 June.
I’m at the end of my first full week in Cambodia. I was warned that in the wet season it would be raining large parts of the day, and I’d be riding through mud roads to the school. The wet season hasn’t been so wet: in fact it’s been less wet than an average Melbourne winter. We haven’t been motor cycling through mud as I was warned.
The biggest shock to me so far occurred when I sat in on a third grade English class only to find that the teacher and only 3 students had copies of the text book, and it was English-only with no explanations of the words in Khmer (the Cambodian language). It used words like engineer, doctor and nurse. I’m not sure how the kids were supposed to pick up the meanings. The school has no electricity, and therefore no photocopier, no CD player to use with the English text books, or anything else you and I take for granted.
I’ve started teaching the third grade class, making up the topics each day. We started with food. I used google cartoons to get pictures of melons, pineapples, tomatoes, apples and put these up on the board. Then I would teach the vocab, and then get the kids to come out and touch the picture of the food I had named. Then I’d put up the food names with some missing letters and get the kids to come out and fill in the missing letters. I drew pictures of smiley faces and frowning faces and taught the verb “like”. The trouble was finding a food the kids would say they didn’t like!
The lady who works here long term has been very helpful. She suggested a type of bingo game where the kids have to randomly write 9 words (in this case food words) in a grid, and I select words form the vocab we’ve been studying. The first kid to get all nine is the winner. I make each of the three rows of desks a team and put points up on the board for each row as they get things right. The kids seem to go for that.
One hard thing to get used to is the road rules or lack of them. In theory people are supposed to drive on the right hand side of the road, but its Ok to drive in the wrong direction if you stick to the very edge of the road, thereby turning a two lane road into a 4 lane road of alternating directions. How do accidents not happen? Every just goes very slowly and gives way. There’s none of this western agro “I’ve got right of way here so I’m going to push forward and you just get the hell out of my way.”
The poverty is confronting. If you’ve seen slum dog millionaire you’ll have some idea. Naked two and three-year-olds play on the street-edges just feet from passing motor bikes. I do get tired of being harassed by tuktuk drivers, pimps, and as of last night, directly by prostitutes. (Did I become more handsome overnight?) One advantage of hiring a bicycle today was that I didn’t get harassed in the streets.
The lack of hygiene is amazing. I was told second-hand that at one orphanage all the kids had head lice and they didn’t know it could be treated. So a volunteer paid for head lice treatment and then discovered they hadn’t washed their pillow cases and bedding for three years since the orphanage opened. So they did.
It is difficult to pick up even small phrases in Khmer, because they have 24 vowels compared to our 20 in English the pronunciation is very difficult.
There are free Khmer lessons in one place at 5 pm but I don’t know if I’ll be able to get to them based on my schedule. I hope I can.
The biggest shock to me so far was when I sat in on a third grade English class only to find that the teacher and only 3 students had copies of the text book, and it was English only with no explanations of the words in Khmer (the Cambodian language). It used vocab like engineer and doctor and nurse and I’m not sure how the kids were supposed to pick up the meanings.
The teacher just wrote the passages up on the board and got the kids to recite them parrot fashion. In fact, when I tried to ask a question, the kids began to recite my question parrot fashion, with no understanding that it had been a question.
I have to say my first week in Cambodia was a mix of things. Making up a lesson topics on my own is OK, as long as I don’t run out of ideas. Still I can always ask the other volunteers, the other teachers or folks back home for ideas, and there are websites for these things. This first six week stint was always going to be the hardest part of the learning curve: the ones where the basic mistakes would be made. Hopefully I’ll learn a lot and will be better equipped for my second stint in Phnom Penh.
One hard thing to get used to is the road rules or lack of them. In theory people are supposed to drive on the right hand side of the road, but its Ok to drive in the wrong direction if you stick to the very very right edge of the road, thereby turning a two lane road into a 4 lane road of alternating directions.
How do accidents not happen? Every just goes very slowly and gives way. There’s none of this western agro “I’ve got right of way here so I’m gonna push forward and you just get the hell out of my way.”
The local language is difficult to pick up even small phrases in, because of their use of consonants we don’t have” things that are a tdl sound rolled into one, or something that sounds to me like a pbr rolled into one. However there are free classes at one cafe at 5 pm every night so I’ll try to get to those.
The poverty is confronting. If you’ve seen slum dog millionaire you’ll have some idea. Naked two and three year olds play on the street edges just feet from passing motor bikes I do get tired of being harassed by tuktuk drivers, pimps, and as of last night prostitutes directly. One advantage of hiring a bicycle today was that I didn’t get harassed in the streets.
The lack of hygiene is amazing. In one orphanage all the kids had head lice and they didn’t know it could be treated. So one of the volunteers paid for head lice treatment and then discovered they hadn’t washed pillow cases and bedding for three years since the orphanage opened. So they did. There seems a lot of ignorance on basic hygiene here.
There are free Khmer lessons in one place at 5 pm but I don’t know if I’ll be able to get to them based on my schedule.
I have found three second-hand book shops in the town. Most book are about Cambodia and south east Asia, the temples at Angkor Wat, and travel books. There are several book outlets in town including D’s Books on Pub Street, Blue Apsara and Siem Reap Book Centre in the Old Market area. Several roving book carts prowl the Old Market area, particularly ‘Pub Street,’ offering a good selection of the most popular Cambodia related titles. Book stalls on the riverside of the Old Market sell temple guides and Cambodia-related books, as do small vendors near the temples.
Friday 18 June.
I haven’t mentioned that I’ve been teaching an English class each day for the teachers. For that I’ve used some material from the New headway books that I bought from Australia.
I’ve also been teaching in the afternoons at the new National Youth Centre. Here the students are mostly high school kids who come along with their own text books and problems they want to discuss.
I’ve now found a fourth second hand bookshop in town, but not what you or I would think of as a new bookshop. Having joined an on-line book club, I’ve got to get someone to post the books from Australia: Amazon won’t deliver to Cambodia because they don’t use zip codes/postal codes and Amazon insists on having a zip code or post code. Book Depository in England just won’t post to Cambodia at all. I’m currently reading “The Girl Who Played with Fire”. Larsson certainly knew how to create a character. It’s a pity he died. He would have been interesting to have as a speaker at a writers’ conference.
As for getting books posted over here for my new-found on-line book group, one expat told me not to bother: there’s so much corruption in the Cambodian postal system that anything of value doesn’t arrive unless you send it by UPS or someone similar.
Fortunately in a few weeks’ time I’ll be Phnom Penh (a “real” city with 2 million people, and real bookshops.) Hallelujah!
I’m almost at the end of my fifth week here in Cambodia and will be coming home on the 21st, for a 2 week break before I head of to Phnom Penh. I have to say it’s been mentally exhausting.
I’ve gotten used to riding to school on the back of a motor bike, and I gotten used to the rural poverty. It’s actually very lonely being in a tourist town where 98 per cent of the English speaking population are just tourists passing through for 3 or 4 nights. I miss being able to sit down and have a conversation with anyone I know. Skype and email have kept me partly sane, as have the Stig Larsson trilogy and a copy of ‘The Time Traveller’s Wife”. Since I’m leaving on a Tuesday I’ll probably go out and visit the temples again on my last Monday.
Fortunately Phnom Penh has a bigger population of expats so I might be able to find some social groups there. I want to do some serious catching up with people in the two weeks I’m back.
No hand grenades in my hotel!
For the last five weeks I have been walking past a sign on the wall of the lobby in my hotel, but not really looking at it. It’s in Cambodian but it has little pictures on the bottom. I finally stopped and looked at it. The pictures tell you there are three things you can’t bring into the hotel: syringes, hand guns and hand grenades!
13 July 2010
Am I really this stupid?
I spent Sunday looking at the ancient temples around Angkor Wat – near where Tomb Raider was filmed. It’s 35 degrees C (about 100 Fahrenheit) so I took a bottle of sunscreen lotion, a hat, and an umbrella. As the day goes on I’m getting more and more sunburnt on my face and feet (I’m wearing sandals because of the humidity). I can’t figure out what’s going wrong. I stick on more sunscreen. I’m getting redder and redder. At 6 o’clock back in internet cafe I look at the plastic bottle I been using to stick cream on my face. Turns out in my rush to get out of the hotel I picked up the shampoo bottle instead of the sunscreen bottle: the bottles are the same size both have the same looking white cream. So I’ve been putting shampoo on my face neck and feet all day and wondering why I’m being roasted. Aaaaarrrrrggghhhhh!!! My face is still peeling.
The local dentist visited our school today, and all the kids got free tooth brushes and toothpaste. The average Cambodian earns about two dollars a day, and the average farmer about 50 cents a day, so buying tooth brushes and tooth paste isn’t going to happen unless someone gives it to them for free. I watched a demo by the dentist with a giant set of teeth on hinges and a giant teeth brush as the kids were taught how to brush their teeth. For most of them this is a new concept. They just regard tooth decay as part of life and most of them don’t realise there is anything you can do about it or prevent it. One of the British long-term volunteers here paid $800 out of her own pocket to get one kid’s teeth fixed, because he had good English and could get a job eventually on the tourist industry, e.g. on the front desk of a hotel, but no one would employ him with a mouth that’s full of black holes. I’ve taken toothbrushes for granted all my life, and it’s never occurred to me that there are people who can’t do that.
Considering the conditions in the village (thatched huts that look like Europe in the middle ages, dirt roads, no electricity, kids who might only have one or two sets of clothes etc) I’ve come to realise these guys are really working miracles in appalling conditions. The charity just paid for a road to be built into the school and raised up a foot or so from the surrounding ground level , and put culverts (underground pipes crossways to the road) in at key points to let water drain away from the houses into deep ditches on the side of the road, so the road to the school doesn’t get washed away each rainy season. I’m looking forward to two weeks back in Australia before I go to Phnom Penn. I’ll be working there is a school which – and I’m serious here – takes kids who live scavenging recyclables off the municipal rubbish tip and puts them in schools: No doubt that will have some other challenge.
18 July. End of Week 6.
I arrived at school on Monday morning to find they had started work on a new classroom which will be just for all the English classes. It seems to be going up quite quickly.
On Thursday night I was passing a tuktuk on the way back to my hotel, when the driver asked me “You wanna get high?” and another asked me “You want some weed?” the younger guys tell me they are offered drugs all the time. It’s taken six weeks for it to happen to me.