A million questions

Living in Cambodia for an extended period has somewhat ruined travel for me. The idea of going to another country and only skimming the surface of the cultural and historical vastness of a country seems a bit incomplete and, inherently by its nature, superficial. The tantalising glimpses of another culture and life only create further questions. It also makes me feel foolish because I used to feel I had a somewhat complete view of a country I had merely visited. I suppose the maxim is true: the more you know, the more you know you don’t know.

It made me think about what questions someone should know the answer to in order to feel like they had a basic grasp on a country. Many countries require a citizenship test, that ask seemingly arbitrary questions, for those wishing to become a citizen of this country. I thought about what questions I would include if I wrote a citizenship test. So far I’ve come up with about 260 questions. Some of them could be a dissertation topic in themselves; some of them would just require a quick google search. Hopefully, some of them would get people to ponder a bit more about the country they live in, are studying or wish to integrate in.

1. The basics

  1. What is the name of the country?
  2. Who leads the country?
  3. What type of government is it?
  4. Who are its nearest neighbours?
  5. What are its major languages?

2. Demographics

  1. What is the population of the country?
  2. How many people live in urban areas? What is that as a percentage of the overall population?
  3. What are the largest urban areas in the country? What are their populations?
  4. How many people live in rural areas? What is that as a percentage of the overall population.
  5. How does the country’s population compare to the rest of the region?
  6. What are the different people groups in the country?
  7. Where can they be found?
  8. What is the main people group and what is their attitude towards the others?
  9. Which people groups have the economic power and political power in the country?
  10. What are the different people groups’ attitudes towards the others?
  11. Which people groups live alongside one another?
  12. What type of interactions are there between the groups (business, social, religious, etc.)?
  13. What are the sources of conflict between the people groups?
  14. What stereotypes have each group formed other the other?
  15. What are the obvious shibboleths (cultural markers) of each group?
  16. What are the main differences between the groups?
  17. What is the average age of the country?
  18. What is the average life expectancy of the country?
  19. How does the life expectancy vary regionally, between urban and rural areas, and between people groups?
  20. What is the population growth of the country?
  21. What are the consequences of this growth?
  22. Are some people groups growing quicker than others? What could be the impacts of this change in demographics?
  23. What are the effects of emigration and immigration on the population?
  24. What are the factors causing emigration and immigration?
  25. What are the attitudes towards emigration and immigration?

3. Geography, climate and landmarks

  1. What landscapes are there in a country?
  2. How do the landscapes influence the lifestyle of those living there?
  3. What is the climate of the country?
  4. What seasons are there?
  5. How do the climate and seasons effect the culture and daily life?
  6. How do the landscapes look different according to the seasons?
  7. Is the climate and weather different in different regions?
  8. How do the seasons affect nature, wildlife, crops and harvests?
  9. How have the seasonal changes been affected by climate change?
  10. How has this affected the people?
  11. What natural landmarks are there in the country?
  12. What are the attitudes towards these landmarks?
  13. How are these landmarks a part of the national identity?
  14. What manmade landmarks are there in the country?
  15. What are the attitudes towards these landmarks?
  16. How are these landmarks a part of the national identity?

4. Culture and values

  1. What is the dominant culture?
  2. Is it a individualistic or communal culture?
  3. Is it a guilt culture, shame culture or fear culture?
  4. What are the significant cultural values?
  5. What of the consequences of breaching these cultural values?
  6. How do others respond to social deviance?
  7. How is social order and the status quo maintained?
  8. What behaviours are considered polite or impolite?
  9. What do they celebrate?
  10. How do they celebrate?
  11. How do they respond to major life events (births, deaths, sickness, marriage, new job, job loss, moving house)?
  12. What are the general fears of the culture?
  13. What do they do to alleviate these fears?
  14. What secular holidays or national celebrations are there?
  15. How are the holidays and celebrations linked to the climate, geography or nature of the country?
  16. What do these holidays and celebrations tell us about what is important to this culture?
  17. What are the influences of minority cultures, neighbouring cultures or other cultures on the culture of this country?
  18. What social hierarchies and class systems are there?
  19. How can you tell the difference between those of difference social status?
  20. Is it easy to gain social status?
  21. What generational differences are there in terms of cultural values?
  22. What are the traditional arts, songs, instruments and dances of the country?
  23. Are these traditions being preserved or are they dying out?
  24. What other traditional cultural artefacts are there?
  25. Who performs or creates these cultural artefacts?
  26. Where can you see them displayed or being created?
  27. What are the myths and legends of the culture?
  28. What stories are famous and often told?
  29. What proverbs are there?

5. History

  1. What are the major events to affect the country within living memory?
  2. How are these events remembered and commemorated?
  3. What effect do these events have on the national psyche and sense of identity?
  4. How do different generations view the events?
  5. How do the different people groups view these events?
  6. How widespread was the effects?
  7. How does the global community view the events?
  8. How is this similar or different to how it is viewed in the country?
  9. How are these events taught in schools?
  10. How are they talked about?
  11. What historical events are still celebrated or commemorated in the country?
  12. How are they remembered?
  13. What does the remembrance of these events suggest about nation values and identity?
  14. How are these historical events viewed across generations and people groups?
  15. How have these historical events been mythologised over time?
  16. How are they taught in school?

6. Faith

  1. What is the dominant religion of the country?
  2. How does it affect the social structure of the country and of communities?
  3. What religious buildings are there in the country and in the average community?
  4. How does religion affect daily life?
  5. What religious festivals and observances are there?
  6. How does faith affect views towards major life events?
  7. How do they believe the world was created?
  8. Where do humans come from according to their beliefs?
  9. How do they explain other natural phenomenon?
  10. What happens when people die?
  11. Will the world end? How will it happen?
  12. How do people interact with the spiritual domain?
  13. Who is able to interact with the spiritual domain?
  14. What hierarchies does religion create or enforce in the country?
  15. What role does religion have in maintaining the status quo?
  16. How is this country’s religion different from its neighbours?
  17. How do people of this country worship in a way that is different to other adherents of that faith?
  18. What superstitions are there?
  19. What objects, animals or natural phenomenon have spiritual significance?
  20. What beliefs are there in fate or luck?
  21. How can you change your fate or luck?

7. Family life

  1. What is the size of an average family unit?
  2. Who makes up an average family?
  3. How many people will live in the same house?
  4. What is the size of an average house? How many rooms does it have?
  5. How many children does an average woman have?
  6. What are the roles of each member of a family?
  7. Do families live within the same communities?
  8. What are the attitudes towards care for the elderly?
  9. How are children raised, disciplined and nurtured?
  10. What is the average age to get married?
  11. When are you considered past your prime?
  12. Who haves the economic power or responsibility in a family?
  13. What traditions and practices are there relating to pregnancy and birth?
  14. What traditions and practices are there relating to death and illness?
  15. How do they celebrate birthdays?
  16. What ceremonies are related to courting, engagements and weddings?
  17. What is the attitude towards divorce and infidelity?
  18. What are the rates of domestic abuse?
  19. Are there differences in family life between urban and rural areas? What are they and why are there these differences?
  20. How has the look of the family changed between generations?
  21. What does a family meal look like?
  22. How often do extended families eat together?

8. Daily life

  1. What time do people get up?
  2. What time do they go to bed?
  3. How many people share a bed?
  4. What are the children’s/babies sleep routines? Are they different from the adults?
  5. How many days a week do they work?
  6. How long are their work hours?
  7. What are the household tasks or chores that need doing?
  8. Who does them?
  9. Where do they do their shopping?
  10. How many meals do they eat a day?
  11. What do they eat for each meal?
  12. Do they eat at home or do they eat out?
  13. How much money do they spend on grocery shopping?
  14. What do they do with their free time?
  15. Who do they spend their free time with?
  16. What is the most popular non-alcoholic and alcoholic drink in the country?
  17. What sports are popular in this country?
  18. What music do they listen to?
  19. Do they use social media? Which sites do they use?
  20. Do they have access to television, radio or films? What do they watch?
  21. What objects would you find in the average house? What are they for?
  22. What daily struggles or frustrations might a person face?
  23. What transportation do people use on a daily basis?
  24. What do people wear on a daily basis?
  25. What influences the fashions and what is worn?
  26. How far do people travel on a regular basis?

9.Community life

  1. What are the names for community units? How are they structured?
  2. What hierarchies are in place? Who has authority within a community?
  3. Where do communities gather?
  4. When do communities gather?
  5. Where do communities interact?
  6. Where is the heartbeat of community life?
  7. What is the relationship between private and public life?
  8. Who are the gatekeepers to the communities?
  9. Who knows everyone’s business in a community?
  10. What social ties are there within communities?
  11. How do people feel about spending time with others?
  12. How do people feel about spending time alone?
  13. How many people have visited other countries?

10. Education and employment

  1. What level of the population are literate?
  2. What is the education system of the country?
  3. What is the attitude towards education in the country?
  4. How many children attend school?
  5. How big are the average classroom sizes?
  6. How do the following factors affect educational attainment: gender, region and affluence?
  7. Which educational establishments have the best reputation?
  8. What is the most common type of degree, certification or training?
  9. How do most people find work?
  10. What is the rate of employment in the country?
  11. What are the consequences of unemployment?
  12. Which sector is the largest provider of employment in the country?
  13. Which company is the largest employer?
  14. What is considered a good job in the country?
  15. What is the average wage?
  16. How many people live in poverty?
  17. What sectors are growing in the country? How is this impacting employment?

11. Health and safety

  1. Does the average family have a fresh water supply? Where do they get their water from?
  2. Does the average family have access to electricity? What are the sources of electricity?
  3. How do they maintain cleanliness and hygiene?
  4. Does the average family have access to a toilet?
  5. What illnesses are common in the country?
  6. How are they treated? How are they prevented?
  7. Is prevention, treatment and health education widespread?
  8. What is the infant mortality rate?
  9. How many people per doctor are there in the country?
  10. What is the leading cause of death?
  11. What is the rate of alcohol addiction?
  12. What is the rate of substance abuse?
  13. Where are the best hospitals?
  14. Who has access to them?
  15. What is the attitude towards medical treatment?
  16. What traditional practises are used to treat illnesses?
  17. How do cultural beliefs impede improvements in health?
  18. What dangerous animals are a risk in that country?
  19. What is the safest way to travel?
  20. What do people feel afraid of? What makes them feel unsafe?

12. Communication

  1. How long is the dominant language’s alphabet?
  2. What are the main features of the language?
  3. What other languages are spoken?
  4. What gestures or facial expressions are important?
  5. What gestures or facial expressions are best avoided?
  6. Is the communication style direct or indirect?
  7. What honorific terms are used?
  8. How is status, hierarchy or social identity revealed through speech?
  9. How similar is spoken speech to its written language?
  10. What percentage of the population uses mobile phones?
  11. What are the major network providers?
  12. Is there a postal service and how do you use it?
  13. How is major news and important information distributed?
  14. What TV stations are there?
  15. What newspapers are there?

13. Development

  1. Is the country an LEDC (less economically developed country) or MEDC (more economically developed country)?
  2. What is the GDP per capita?
  3. What is the percentage of annual GDP growth?
  4. What factors have promoted economic growth in the last decade, twenty years or fifty years?
  5. What factors have prevented economic growth in the last decade, twenty years or fifty years?
  6. How has the life expectancy changed over the last decade, twenty years or fifty years?
  7. How has the infant mortality rate changed over the last decade, twenty years or fifty years?
  8. How has the literacy rate changed over the last decade, twenty years or fifty years?
  9. What is the country’s largest source of money?
  10. What is their biggest export?
  11. How many tourists visit a year?
  12. Where do the tourists come from?
  13. Who benefits most from tourism?
  14. Who benefits most from businesses?
  15. How is the country’s wealth distributed?

14. Summary

  1. What are major common themes in the various answers?
  2. What are the biggest trends in growth?
  3. What are the reasons for optimism for the country?
  4. Who is doing important working in promoting change for the country?
  5. What are the major challenges this country might face in the future?
  6. What are the possible solutions to such challenges?
  7. What changes do people predict for the country?
  8. What changes do you predict for the country?
  9. What could the outside world do for the country?
  10. What is your own personal relationship with the country?
  11. What are your thoughts and feelings about the various topics?
  12. What surprised you the most?
  13. What topics would you research further?
  14. How did you find the answer to the questions?
  15. What personal anecdotes do you have about adjusting to life in this country?
  16. What sources of conflict are there between your native culture and your second (or third) culture?
  17. What have been the major challenges for you adapting to this country?
  18. How do you feel about the country now having answered the questions?
  19. What discovery do you think will be the most helpful in integrating into this country?
  20. What mistakes have you made in the past that you now understand more fully having answered these questions?

I can probably answer about 40% of the questions with any accuracy. The answers would be too long for a single blog post, but I might try answering them. By the time I have finished them all, I would probably have a rather comprehensive research paper on my hands.

Hopefully, others that I intending to get to know a particular country more fully, or just cement what they know about a place more fully, will find this list interesting and helpful.

2018- the overview

Wow, 2018 has been quite a year. It’s had two British royal weddings; a FIFA World Cup in Russia; the Commonwealth Games in Australia; Mark Zuckerberg testified in front of Congress; 4 UK citizens were poisoned using the nerve agent Novichock killing one; the northern white rhinoceros became extinct; Indonesia was hit by both an earthquake and a few months later a tsunami, together leaving tens of thousands dead and hundreds of thousands injured; and a children’s football team and their coach were rescued from caves in Thailand. When considered next to this global perspective, my life is not nearly as significant or dramatic, but 2018 was an important year for me, just the same.

It’s also really difficult to look back on: not emotionally but in terms of ordering and placing certain events that happened. My brain did this weird thing when I arrived back in Cambodia. The previous year in Cambodia and the subsequent year back in the UK seem to have gone through this strange cognitive shift. My brain seems to have arranged them so that UK life and Cambodia life maintain a contiguous narrative. So thinking about early 2018 is really hard, because I have to make a mental effort to tell my brain those events did happen at that point in time. I’ve currently got a Facebook poll going to see if anyone relates to this. If I’m on my own, I’ll let you know.

Seeing as this blog is as much about recording memories for me as it is about sharing them with you all, I thought I would try to sum up the whirlwind that was my life.

January

In December 2017, I applied for a position at HOPE International School in Cambodia. On 11th January, I was offered an interview. This would be a Skype interview at 6.00 am on a Wednesday, before I went to work. The interview was a success and I was offered a job two days later. I was returning to Cambodia. However, at this point, I did not know whether I was going to be living in Phnom Penh or Siem Reap. HOPE has two campuses and there was a suitable position at both. I had told the school I did not mind which one I went worked at so had to wait for their decision.

February

I turned 30! I’m not really a huge birthday person (my own, that is- I get more excited about other people’s), but with some reluctance I arranged a celebration. I had to endure the cake being bought in by waitresses singing and shaking tambourines. It was awful. My friends delighted in how terrible I found the experience. The cake was great, though!

I also found out that I would be in Phnom Penh, teaching International Baccalaureate and iGCSE English and English literature. There was a little bit of grieving for the future I would not have in Siem Reap. However, I loved Phnom Penh (I still do), and I reminded myself that I would love it just as much.

March

It started snowing at the end of February, but eventually got deep enough to have a couple of snow days.

I enjoyed the snow, but I decided I definitely had enough to last me for the next two years in Cambodia. I remember the winter of 2017-2018 as very long, dark and cold. It may be because I had skipped the winter of 2016-17, so I was less prepared, but I remember driving home each day after school and it being very bleak.

I booked my plane tickets: Heathrow to Bangkok (with a change at Moscow); and then Bangkok to Phnom Penh a day later. However, because of the Russian involvement in the US elections, and heightened tension between the UK and Russia due to the recent poisonings in nearby Salisbury, my mother did not approve of my route and airline choice (Aeroflot). However, I was more than happy to exploit the post-World Cup plane prices.

April

My mum turned 60. I created a “old ladies starter kit” for her. She was overwhelmingly pleased with the gifts, which was concerning as the aim was to buy useless, unwanted presents. The only thing she was particularly horrified by was the pearl chain for her glasses.

April, as it was the holidays, was also a time to start sorting out a lot of my stuff. Most of my belongings went to charity shops.

I also made some បបរ (babar, or Cambodian rice porridge) and Cambodian styled coffee.

May

“Go to dentist” was one of the first things on my “Return to Cambodia to do list”. I finally ticked it off! I was needlessly anxious about needing more fillings, and I was problem free. (Well, at least my teeth were.)

I remember May was a particularly beautiful month. The sun seemed to shine a lot and it reminded me how beautiful Britain was.

May saw the royal wedding. I baked a lemon and elderflower cake, as that was what Harry and Meghan were having. It was the biggest cake I’ve ever baked.

There are perils of nice weather and living in the New Forest. The excursions into the countryside bought me too close to the local wildlife, and I got my third tick since returning from Cambodia.

The hot weather did bring some spectacular storms, which I hated driving in. However, I braved it, and drove to a hill in an open area of heathland to get a panoramic view of the lightening. Unfortunately, storms don’t film well on iPhones, so what I captured didn’t do it justice.

June

I drove to Cornwall and back to visit the Bemrose family. It nearly killed my car and I remember there being sand everywhere. It was a great time. It was also a blessing going to the Bemrose’s church and people offering to pray for me.

I also went on a zombie-run with my work bestie. I found out I was no-nonsense and a bit cut-throat in survival situations.

There was a heatwave and everyone seemed to lose their mind. However, it reminded me very much of teaching in Cambodia. I was able to implement some of my hot weather tricks (including wearing t-shirts under you shirt, which everyone thought was crazy, but it isn’t).

The end of the month saw the year 11 prom. I love proms, possibly more than the kids.

Prom selfie!

I find out that I would not be teaching the International Baccalaureate. This is simultaneously frustrating (I had bought and begun reading the set texts) and a relief as I had little previous knowledge of the system and it was causing me some anxiety.

On the last day of June, I drove up to Coventry and back, for the Bagg-Lowe wedding. It was great to see them get married and to catch up with some old friends!

July

This was the last month I had to prepare for leaving to Cambodia, as I was leaving on the last Monday of July. So, I intentionally left it quiet. There was only my dad’s massive 60th birthday party, my farewell party, a church goodbye, cooking a Cambodian meal for my church small group, and the various end-of-year goodbyes at school; as well as trying to pack within my baggage allowance. So, July, was in fact, a crazily busy month. I think that was useful in a way, because I just had to get on with it and not think about what was happening.

The last day of school was emotionally charged. A lot of the kids cried. Some of them only came in because it was my last day (missing the last day of school is quite common…). They filled my car with balloons (they spied an opportunity when I was returning somethings from my car to my classroom and hadn’t locked it again). They also designed and bought me a horrible, garish t-shirt and it remains one of my very favourites.

After this whirlwind, I finally packed and was ready to leave…

Early on Monday 23rd July, I headed off towards Heathrow Airport on a flight to Bangkok, Thailand. At last, I was heading back to Cambodia.

I enjoyed my whistle-stop tour of Bangkok (except the part when they tried to sell me expensive jewellery and suits). Bangkok had enough that was familiar to make me feel I was definitely getting close to my goal, but there were enough differences to know I was not quite there yet. Perhaps its because I wasn’t seeing the familiar sights and didn’t have a sense of my bearings, like I do when in Cambodia. The temple tours were fun, though. You definitely get the sense that Thailand (then Siam) was a grander nation than Cambodia in the last few centuries.

After 24 hours in Bangkok, I boarded another plane to Phnom Penh. I was already excited in the airport when I realised, whilst queuing for security, that I was in a line with a group of Cambodians. Then at the departure gate, there were more Cambodians. I did debate for a while whether to try and strike up a conversation, but I think that jet-lag would have made it too hard.

After about an hour, the plane turned and tilted, revealing the meandering Mekong River. I could see Koh Dach (Silk Island) in the centre. Then I could see Chaktomuk (the four faces). Its where the Tonlé Sap river, the Mekong and the distributary Tonlé Bassac all join; the centre of Phnom Penh lies on the banks of this 1 km stretch of water.

We swooped over the north of Phnom Penh. Comparing Bangkok and Phnom Penh as you flew over them, you definitely saw how Phnom Penh was smaller and less dense than the other capital. However, as I saw the familiar grid pattern and boreys (neighbourhoods), I definitely knew which I had the emotional connection to. I did manage not to cry.

I finally arrived in Phnom Penh, a bit dazed and tired. A new colleague took me to my new apartment for the first time. It looked great, but a little bare. I had about a week to sort myself out.

Of course, one of the highlights was being reunited with my Cambodian brother, Vitou.

August

In the week I had to sort myself, I squeezed in a visit to Siem Reap. I left 11pm on 31st July, to arrive in the town I used to live on 1st August. I had breakfast at my friends’ house, then attended a team prayer meeting, visited the school I worked at and (I think, shared lunch with them), then had another team meeting then went for dinner. The next morning, I was heading back to Phnom Penh. It was definitely a whirlwind. It felt good to be back, but it didn’t make me regret the fact I was now in Phnom Penh.

I started at my new school. The first few weeks were a confusing barrage of alien acronyms and systems. I begun teaching my new classes and it quickly became clear that the students at HOPE has as much life and personality as the ones in Sholing (although it manifests in slightly different ways).

There were also humorous incidents (getting a new gas bottle; being chased by a dog; etc.). I also have a placement test for Khmer classes at G2K. I was tired, somewhat stressed and anxious. They advised I entered at level 3.

I also visited Takeo province for the first time, to visit the Good Neighbours team. They are a part of my sending organisation, WEC, and they run a pre-school and a church in the village. I really enjoyed my time here.

September

In September, Vitou’s family grew. His wife gave birth to a lovely baby girl!

September was a time of getting into new routines and settling into the new life at HOPE school and north Phnom Penh. I started attending Vitou’s church, which was conveniently right down the road to where I live. I had my first lesson at G2K. My fears were unnecessary, as I really enjoyed the process. I also discovered all the words were on an online shared area, so I could swot up beforehand.

I had my first lesson at G2K. My fears were unnecessary, as I really enjoyed the process. I also discovered all the words were on an online shared area, so I could swot up beforehand.

A friend visited from Malaysia with another of her friends. I took them on a brief tour of Phnom Penh, including Wat Phnom and Central Market.

On the last weekend of September, the new staff had a boat trip along the Tonle Sap and Mekong. It was a great way to see Phnom Penh. On the Saturday, a group of us also went up Phnom Penh Tower, to see the view at the top. With all these night-time photos, they don’t do it justice.

October

This was again quite a busy month. I was continuing with my Khmer lessons. I also watched a Cambodia vs Singapore football match (Cambodia lost). It was the Pchum Ben holiday. I taught at the rural villages for the first time.

It was also Vitou’s wife’s birthday, so there was a party.

November

November was Vitou’s birthday, so another party. I had also introduced him and his family to Carl’s Jr. Vitou also began tutoring me Khmer. So, I was doing Khmer at G2K on Mondays and Wednesdays and with Vitou on Tuesday and Thursdays. This did mean that a lot of time on Saturdays was spent retreating to a cafe and tackling the marking and planning I had to do.

Vitou, his whole family and I attempted a trip to Kirirom mountain. We didn’t make it that far as the car broke down. I spent most of the day at Vitou’s dad’s house and then in a car getting towed back to Phnom Penh. Despite not arriving at our intended destination, it was still quite a fun adventure.

December

The end of November and December were quite stressful and this meant I lost some sleep. This is because it’s marking and reporting deadline time and also I had my Khmer assessment. There were various events going on, and I was often double booked as a result. Also, there’s a difference in western style planning and Khmer style planning for events which often are at odds. However, it was still a really enjoyable month.

It was Vitou’s twin’s birthday. So, again another party. (Next year there will be a party every month from September-December in Vitou’s family.)

There was also the wonderful wedding of my friend, Jonathan. It was great, as I was invited to both the morning and the afternoon session. It was really fun and interesting to see a Christian Khmer wedding ceremony. (I’ll try to blog about it later.)

The wedding procession.

There was another boat cruise, this time with my WEC team.

I passed my level 3 assessment. I still need to work on some aspects of my pronunciation. I’m going to write myself a plan of action and each week focus on a particular set of sounds. (Sounds geeky, doesn’t it.)

Of course, then there were the various Christmas celebrations. Again, on Christmas Eve I had to negotiate being in two places at once. However, it went without too much problems.

Wow, I’ve been busy

Looking back at it all, I’ve been really busy. 2018 has been a crazy year. The events at the beginning seem a different life-time away. 2019 might be a little bit calmer, but I’m not so sure.

Silk Island 2: Worms and weaving

This is the second part of my adventures on Silk Island. To read the rather hilarious first part, click here.

So, Vitou and I escaped the silk weaver’s house. (I can’t even remember her name; I’m that much of a scoundrel.) I did not have to marry anyone, which was a relief. Say that I have commitment issues all you like, but I just wasn’t ready for it, you know?

We weren’t really sure on our next plan, so Vitou phoned his friend to ask what we should do next.

“I’m sorry,” Vitou needlessly apologised. “I have not been here before.”

I would trust Vitou with my life. I’d probably trust him with my credit card PIN. Heck, I’d even trust him with my Facebook login details. So, I accepted whatever plan he decided on and got in his tuk tuk.

Vitou headed north as there was apparently a beach resort at the northern-most tip of Koh Dach. It was a really nice journey, as Silk Island is mostly farmland and countryside. It was a refreshing change from the concrete and the litter and the smelly “canals” (open sewers) you find in Phnom Penh. So I really just enjoyed the scenery and the beauty of it. The tarmacked road turned into gravel road, and we still happily bounced along. Then the gravel stopped.

July and August are apparently meant to have the heaviest rain, but this year it seemed to wait for mid-September. Although the weather was really nice while we were there, the downpours throughout the week prior had left the roads as nothing but muddy troughs. Being a typical Brit, I didn’t say anything about possibly stopping there. Being Khmer and not wanting to disappoint, Vitou continued. So we both went on through the slippery, uneven terrain. Vitou did brilliantly at guiding the tuk tuk through the mud, but his poor motorbike and tuk tuk did take a bit of a battering.

We did get stuck at one point, so I got out and gave a push. There were other occasions when the jolts and bumps produced concerning noises. I was worried that the wooden tuk tuk would shatter and poor Vitou would have lost his livelihood (tuk tuk drivers are able to hire tuk tuks, but he’d have to pay that as well as the loan he got to buy his current one). I made a mental calculation as to whether it was viable for me to buy him another tuk tuk if my westerner’s weight split this one asunder. (I think you can get the bike and the tuk tuk for around $2000, if anyone is interested.)

We nearly got to the resort when the road turned to nothing but thick mud and high mounds of gravel (there was some sort of construction work happening). However, it was only about another one hundred metres to the resort so Vitou parked the tuk tuk and we got out and walked. There was a really interesting building, possibly a lighthouse. I said it was beautiful; Vitou wasn’t so impressed.

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The resort consisted of less than a dozen wooden homes, with two “restaurants”. I mentioned to Vitou about getting food, and he spoke to one of the locals and told me, “You can buy rice and a whole chicken. It is fifteen dollars.”

“Tlai!” I responded. Vitou seemed to agree that it was a bit costly.

We walked up to the beach. However, you know how I said that September has had quite heavy rain. Well, this means the Mekong has swelled and the water levels have drowned the beach.  There were dozens of huts (essentially, moveable palm leaf covers with a little bamboo platform underneath), but these had been bought up onto the shore out of the river. The view across the Mekong was impressive (although a little bit obscured by the huts) and you got an impression of how big it actually is.

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The “beach”

Vitou told me that this is the place that families from Phnom Penh come when it is really hot. It’s also a romantic get-away where you take your girlfriend, he said. This was not something I really needed to know, not having quite moved on from my previous failed relationship an hour back.

We had a bit more of a look around then walked back to the tuk tuk. I had some cereal bars in my bag, so shared them with Vitou. I’m not sure he would recommend them to a friend, but we were both quite hungry at the time.

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View down the Mekong from the bumpy bridge.

We managed to make it back through the mud, then turned and crossed over a narrow channel of the Mekong on a large but bumpy wooden and steel bridge. We then headed towards the Silk Weaver’s Community. It is essentially a museum of Silk Weaving and other eclectic traditional agricultural artefacts. There was even a guide to tell us about it all. It only costs $1 to get in (but you won’t be allowed to leave until you bought some silk).

He showed us two traditional huts on stilts, that were essentially of a His and Her design. The hut for the men had a rounded roof, the women’s hut had a pointed gable. When two families wanted to match-make with their sons and daughters, they would send one young man in to the man’s hut, and a girl into the adjacent hut. I think the ideas was that in their loneliness, they would find comfort in the embrace of one another. Fed up of the topic of Cambodian romance, I was glad when we moved on to the topic of worms.

He took us through the process of the worm breeding and feeding. They cut the cocoons of the female silk butterflies open, but as they did not naturally emerge, their wings are not fully formed preventing them from flying off. They are introduced to the male butterflies, with whom they mate. (The male butterflies seem to go off and die at this point.) The butterflies lay the eggs on paper, which is kept for a number of days. The eggs hatch, and the worms are feed on mulberry leaves that are harvested from the nearby farms. The worms, after a few weeks, weave themselves a silk cocoon. I thought that the butterflies were then boiled alive. However, this is not what happens. Instead, the cocoons are put out into the sun (except the ones that have been left to mature to malformed butterflies), and this is what kills them. Then the cocoons are boiled.

One cocoon makes about one hundred metres of silk. However, 80% of this is relatively coarse and is only used for making things like table runners or scarves. 20% is fine silk fibres, which goes to make more delicate garments. The raw silk is a beautiful golden yellow colour. It is then put on a spindle and a spinning wheel and spun into threads.

We were then taken to the looms and shown these in action. I was able to ask some questions about the process. Apparently, it takes about a month or more to set up a single loom. Each one is set up to weave a particular design. The loom has a number of horizontal bars, with vertical threads hanging down from them. The silk threads of the fabric that is to be woven passes through the vertical threads. The weaver selects the different bars, which then determiners which silks threads are raised and lowered. When the shuttle is passed between the threads, this is what creates the pattern. A simple pattern with have around fifteen of these horizontal bars, a more complex pattern could have forty. The weaver will have to remember which bar to select at which point, in order to create the desired pattern. They also need to be on the look-out for broken threads which need to be mended. After every few feet or so, they will often stop and check the loom, adjusting some of the threads if necessary.

I confused myself just writing that, so if you didn’t follow it, don’t worry. No wonder it takes up to two years to learn the silk weaving process. Then it’s only the old women of the village, who have been weaving for years, that design the different patterns as their extensive weaving experience gives the knowledge of how to do it. It’s amazing the work that actually goes into creating silk.

My guide led Vitou and I around the rest of the centre. This included a small menagerie of animals, including monkeys and porcupines. I thought porcupines were African animals, so was surprised to see one here. (After a bit of research, I discovered they are Malayan or Himilayan porcupines. Unsurprisingly, they are eaten.) There were also peacocks roaming about, but they weren’t the beautiful type you see in country estates in the UK. They looked more like turkeys that were half-way through being plucked ready for Christmas dinner.

We got led to the waterfront, where they had a swimming pool of sorts. I write “of sorts”, because I’m not sure I would brave it. It was essentially a cage sat in the Mekong, and judging by the silt that was being dredged from the pool, it was mostly filled with mud. We were then led past more His and Her huts, and over a little bridge made in the traditional fashion. Vitou was very hesitant to walk over it, probably because he is wiser than I am. It did look, to be fair, as if someone had found a bamboo mat and nailed to the sides of a bridge. The holes suggested that this bridge had seen better days. But it did support the weight of three grown adults, so looks can be deceiving (for now at least).

We got to the end of the museum tour and was about to leave; Vitou helpfully and subtly said, “Perhaps you give him a tip.” So I did, and we went. I asked about getting food somewhere here or just return to Phnom Penh. We decided food was too expensive here so we went back home. In the end, I didn’t have time to get anything to eat before I needed to be at a team meeting in the afternoon.

While waiting for the ferry back, there were some last attempts by locals to sell me more silk. I tried to point out I have enough silk already.

Vitou took me to where the team meeting was being held and I paid him. Normally, in these types of articles, you would detail the costs, including “paying for a tuk tuk driver for a day”. However, Vitou rarely tells me how much I should give him. He probably does it so I can pay a reduced rate, but my sense of gratitude and utter dependence on him means I will pay more than is required. He usually just says, “Pay what you think you should,” then leaves it up to me. I think the usual rate is about $15-$20 for a day. However, I felt obliged to pay for the cost of getting his tuk tuk cleaned and for being my bodyguard/ chaperone/ photographer/ cultural guide for the day as well. I won’t say how much I paid, but it was worth every riel.

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Journey back with Vitou.

So here are my general tips for going to Silk Island:

  • Bring more money than you think you’ll need. You may need to pay for a wedding or buy your way out of awkward social situations.
  • Head to the Silk Community Centre first. You’ll see pretty much everything you’ll see elsewhere there.
  • Don’t go to the top of the island unless it’s been pretty dry.
  • Don’t let your tuk tuk driver leave your side.
  • Bring your own food (although there is a restaurant at the ferry terminal on the island, and that doesn’t look too bad).
  • Enjoy your adventure.