What am I up to?

Some of you may know that I have recently arrived into the UK. I am here until 30th December, when (assuming I don’t have COVID-19 and can get a fit-to-travel certificate) I will return to Cambodia. You may be wondering why I am here.

My study space

Well, first, because I was meant to come home in the summer. I finished my time at HOPE school and it seemed it would be a good time for a UK stop-over before I recommenced life over in Cambodia. However, coronavirus’ shenanigans meant there were questions about visas and self-isolation back in June which made a return unrealistic. So I stayed on until September. The organisation I work for has an annual conference, where the workers from across Cambodia meet up, spend time together, make important decisions, write minutes (that was my job!), and eat food. It was important for me to be there because I’m the only native English speaker in the team that is still in the country and the minutes have to be in English. Also, because one of the important decisions was about me.

Up until now, I have only been a part of my mission organisation in short-term roles (2016-17 as a TEFL teacher in Siem Reap; 2018-2020 as a middle school and IGCSE English and English literature teacher). If your roles are for no more than two years, you are a short-termer. However, I want to transition from a short-termer to a full-termer. (This means being a real missionary – I’ve ordered my pith hat and sandal-shoes combo.)

This takes two to three stages, which usually go in this order (because it’s the sensible way to do it).

First, conduct some training in your home country. This is to prepare you for life abroad and some of the problems you might encounter. During the 11-12 week course, you decide whether you do actually feel like you fit with the organisation or not and the organisation decides whether they agree.

Then, you go to the country you will work in and start a two-year stage as a new worker – again to see if the culture, country, work and language is a good fit. After that, you get accepted as a full time worker in the country.

Either before you start, or sometime within the first five years of being accepted as a worker in your home country, you need to do some theological training. It’s more common to have had this training before you start, but it’s getting increasingly flexible.

Well, of course, I’ve done everything in the opposite order. As I’ve already spent three years in Cambodia, the folks there decided it was apparent the county, culture, work and language was a good fit. So at the conference, one of the big decisions was to recognise that and appoint me as a full-term worker. This did take a bit of negotiation with the UK end, because it is the opposite way to how it usually happens. But it worked out, and I have started the 11 week course at the UK end to allow me to join the organisation. Due to coronavirus, it’s mostly on zoom and I was actually in Cambodia when it started.

As for the theological training, I’ve also started an MA in missiology (the study of mission). The college agreed to allow me to learn more flexibly for the next few weeks, rather than attending all the lectures “live” because of the other course I am on (again, this was the result of some negotiation and juggling). There is a lot of reading. In fact, these are the pdfs for the reading for the first two weeks. Fortunately, a lot of the theory side is familiar from my English degree, so old friends like Ferdinand de Saussure, Michel Foucault and Edward Said keep cropping up.

That’s quite a bit of reading.

If that overview is quite confusing, don’t worry I feel it too. It’s been a bit of a struggle fitting all the pieces together. If you are still unsure, here’s an overview:

  • I have been accepted as a full-time worker by the Cambodia team of my organisation;
  • I am taking the training course that allows me to be accepted by the UK team.
  • I have started a masters.
  • My life is currently conducted by Zoom and through reading pdfs.

If you have any questions, let me know! I’d be happy to answer them.

August

I know it’s nearly the end of September, but I’ve been busy, so please be nice.

The first week was just dedicated to my Gateway 2 Khmer assessment. I had some reading, writing, listening and a presentation. I might be a little bit obsessive when it comes to the presentations. That week was really intense so I purposely booked myself a staycation in the centre of Phnom Penh. I stayed at the White Mansion Hotel and just spent two days exploring the area and trying new places.

The next week was not so good. I attempted to do some training at HOPE, but unfortunately, none of the technology worked and it was a terrible shambles. It didn’t help that I had a very sleepless week. Then that weekend, I had a family bereavement back in the UK. It was one that I had emotionally prepared for in coming to Cambodia, it was more the sleepless nights that led to it that were causing problems.

However, on the day that I heard to news, Vitou arrived home very – er – merry. (As was pretty much 90% of the Cambodian population as it was a national holiday.) He was hilarious in his attempts to console me, so that was a welcome distraction. The Khmer New Year holidays had been postponed from April due to the pandemic, and therefore fell at when I needed them most. It was great to have a time to just relax and recuperate.

We went to the provinces a few times with Vitou and his extended family. First we went to the Phnom Baset on the Kandal Provice/Phnom Penh border.

The next day, we went to Vitou’s dad’s house in Kampong Speu.

I led some more training, which was far more successful (possibly because it was paper based and practical). This time it was at LEC, looking at techniques on how to teach pronunciation by breaking up the phonemes and all that good stuff.

The rest of the month was spent reading the material for my sending mission’s course and for my MA.

Ask a missionary: some answers

Back in January, I wrote a blog post called Ask a missionary. Basically, it was a series of different questions that someone could ask a missionary as ice-breakers. I did create a video answering this first set of questions, but it was a while ago and it’s somewhere buried on my facebook page. I am currently in the UK, but this is only temporary, so the answers are still valid.


Where do you live?

I live in Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia. I live quite far in the north of the city, in an area called Phnom Penh Thmei (New Phnom Penh).

Phnom Penh Thmei

How would you describe your neighbourhood / village/ city / area?

I live in a borey, or a gated community. Basically, it is a set of uniform houses and there are guards the man the entrance and exit, especially at night. The houses are typical phteah lveng, or town houses. There are mango trees lining the roads, shops and cafes in this borey and it is just lovely. (Except the smelly stream through the middle and the rats.)

Phnom Penh Thmei is great but a bit far from the rest of the city. Phnom Penh city centre is vibrant, exciting, often chaotic, but also filled with oases of calm. I love the city. I feel so privileged that I get to call it my home.

Continue reading “Ask a missionary: some answers”

Cambodia: the basics

Last year, when the world was a simpler, less diseased place, I wrote a post called a million questions. It basically goes through 260 questions that give a rough overview of a country and its population. Some of the questions can be answered with a single figure, some of them in a whole book. However, as I’m soon starting an MA and currently reading up on basics of anthropology, I thought I would my “fieldworker” hat on and write what I have currently observed.

Today, I’ll only be noting down some of the basic facts about the country.

1. The basics

What is the name of the country?

English: The Kingdom of Cambodia Khmer: ព្រះរាជាណាចក្រកម្ពុជា IPA: preah riəciənaːcaʔ kampuciə Romanisation: preah reacheanachak kampuchea

The flag of Cambodia

What is Cambodia’s motto and national anthem?

The country’s motto is Nation, Religion, King and it’s national anthem is “Nokor Reach” or “Majestic Kingdom”.

Who leads the country?

King Norodom Sihamoni is the head of state; Hun Sen in the prime minister and head of government.

What type of government is it?

  • It is a constitutional monarchy – so there is a monarch that exercises their powers within the limits of a constitution. In Cambodia, the monarch is decided by the Royal Council of the Throne, rather than through a line of succession. (Think of how the next Pope is decided.)
  • The Prime Minister is the head of government.
  • It is a parliamentary representative democracy and is a unitary state.
  • The parliament consists of two chambers. The upper house is the Senate and the lower house is the National Assembly.
  • Hun Sen has been prime minister 1985.

Hun Sen is the longest-serving non-royal head of government in South East Asia, and one of the longest in the world.

  • The dominant party of Cambodia is the Cambodian People’s Party, which has ruled since 1979.

Who are Cambodia’s nearest neighbours?

Cambodia borders Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. It is also a part of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which consists of Singapore, Brunei, Malaysia, Thailand, Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia. There is also the ASEAN plus three group, which adds China, South Korea and Japan to the list.

What are its major languages?

Khmer (IPA: kʰmae; English rhymes Khmer with pear, but in Khmer it nearly rhymes with pie) is the official language of Cambodia. There are around 19 minority languages spoken. Various forms of Chinese and Vietnamese is commonly heard in Phnom Penh, and a lot of market workers or traders are of Chinese descent. English and French are widely taught in schools, and many Cambodia families in Phnom Penh choose to speak English among themselves as well.

Bad days

Sometimes, it’s easy to focus on all the fun and the great “adventure” that you’re having, but in the interest of balanced honest, I’m going to share some the harder things too. Fortunately, I have had a pretty good time so far, and I’m quite content to just plod along on my own. However, there are a few times when it went a bit wrong. One of these occurred last Friday.

The beginning of it went well and I had a nice day lined up. I was a bit tired from the day before, visiting Tuol Sleng Genocide museum and the Choeung Ek “killing fields”, but I thought the activities wouldn’t be too exhausting and I had Saturday to rest. The day started with my usual routine. My alarm went off at 6am, so I could be ready to walk to my Khmer lesson that starts at 8am. (This part of the day usually includes some frantic revision of the previous days’ vocabulary.) Then I go on my exciting walk to my language school. I will dedicate a post and a video to this part of the day. However, I will probably have to post it after I have moved to Siem Reap. I don’t want to know what would happen if my mum sees the daily dangers I have to negotiate (potential industrial workplace hazards, dangling overhead cables-which probably aren’t live, or at least I didn’t get killed when I walked into one- and then there’s route 271 which I have to cross). But last Friday, I managed survived without a hitch.

My Khmer lesson went okay, if a little exhausting at the end of the week. So, I headed to my usual haunt (Jars of Clay), because I had a few hours to kill before a work lunch. Jars of Clay is quite dangerous, as the cakes are very good. After a good deal of internal debate, I eventually gave into temptation and bought a slice of ginger and carrot cake. (I’m glad I did, because I didn’t end up making it to lunch.)

I went to Angkor Mart next door to buy some chocolates for the lunch (there were three people leaving, so I thought I’d bring something along). The plan was then to find my tuk tuk driver friend and get a lift to the offices. I have not yet been to the offices, but on my first day here I was given a flying tour of the city by my housemate on the back of his moto and he showed me where it was. I also had the site pinned on Google Maps. With these two sources of knowledge I felt confident I would find the place.

So, I looked around for my tuk tuk driver, ignore the calls of “Tuk tuk?” from all the others at the corner of the street. He usually hangs out by Jars of Clay, but he wasn’t there. My British sense of loyalty and social guilt made me reconsider the plan to get a tuk tuk. I thought perhaps if I walked to the Russian Market, where I know a lot of tuk tuk drivers hang out, he might be there. In hindsight, the probability of finding a particular tuk tuk driver in a city where there are literally thousands of them is very slim. What makes this even more ridiculous is that I actually have his phone number. However, I forgot to write down his name, so I was worried about phoning and appearing rude because I had to miss out the necessary pleasantries. If you are not a Brit, this is an insight to the constant social anxiety that we all have to live with (okay, I am a rather extreme version).

I walked to the Russian Market and, unsurprisingly, I did not find my tuk tuk driver. I knew there was another spot near a Buddhist temple where I could catch a tuk tuk not far away. So I got there, and I carried on walking. By this time it was about quarter to twelve, and it was hot. I crossed a busy road. My reasoning was that I work out how to navigate places a lot better if I walk. This is true. When I’m being given a lift somewhere (like on a back of a moto or in a tuk tuk), my ability to keep track of directions completely disappears. I quickly become disoriented and confused. So I thought, if I walked to the offices, it would be a lot easier to find it next time. Also, it was getting to the point where paying for a tut tuk seemed ridiculous. I knew that they would probably charge me two dollars for an insignificant distance. So I walked. In the heat. With a bag full of chocolates. To a place I had never been before.

(Quite often with my students, after they have done something a little, well, stupid, we would go through what happened, stage by stage. After this, they usually say, “Now I can see how ridiculous my behaviour was.” Writing it out like in this post is one of those epiphany moments.)

So I walked, and I found the place where Google Maps indicated the offices would be. But I couldn’t see anything that suggested they were there. As the sun was directly overhead, there was no shade afforded by the surrounding buildings. I thought I would WhatsApp my colleagues about where it was (again, hindsight tells me I should do this before I arrive- which reminds me to find the address of somewhere I need to go this Friday). And I waited for a response. In the sun, I waited for five minutes. There was no answer. I walked up and down the road to see if I could find any clues of where to go. There wasn’t. So I waited another five minutes. This point I was sweating uncomfortably.

Then I remembered I had the office number on an email somewhere. Squinting at my phone, trying to shield it from the sun, I scrolled through my emails. After some more squinting and scrolling, I finally found it on the signature of one the administrator’s emails. I dialled it, cursing my Khmer phone for making this process so difficult (don’t ask me about when I have to tackle an automated switchboard system). Finally, I managed to ring the number. And it rang. And rang. No one was picking up.

“Okay,” I thought, “I’ve got some of my colleagues on WhatsApp. I can find their details from there. I thought it would be easy. However, my hands were so sticky at this point it quickly turned my screen into a blurry, glistening mess under the midday glare. In order to see what I was doing I had to wipe my screen around every 7-15 seconds. Also, WhatsApp, I presume in an attempt to force you to make in-app calls, makes it hard to copy numbers from your contacts. I’m sure there is a way but it’s not easy when you can barely see what you are doing.

I found a number, wrote it on my increasingly moist hands, dialled it and waited. It rang. And it rang. And rang. They didn’t pick up. Find another number. Dial it. It rang. And it rang. And rang. Okay, last attempt. Find a third number. Dial it. Ring it. And it rang. And rang. I hang up defeated.

I sigh. I am soaked in my own sweat. I’m feeling dizzy. I don’t even want to know how the chocolates are faring. It’s got to the stage where I don’t want to be seen by anyone, as I’m so disgusting, let alone have lunch with them. So I decide to abandon it.

I start walking towards Tuol Sleng where I know there’ll be tuk tuks waiting for tourists. As I get half-way there a driver passes, sees the sweaty berang (white person) and says hopefully, “Tuk tuk?”

I nod and, barely getting the sounds out of my dry throat, I pleadingly reply, “yes.”

He turns his tuk tuk around.

“You know 271?” I ask.

“2…”

“Two. Seven. One.”

“Yes,” his lips say; his eyes suggest otherwise.

“Ta Phon?”

“Yes,” he lies. It’s okay. I know how to shout left and right in Khmer, whilst waving my arms in the direction we need to turn.

So he heads off. He’s going in the correct direction; it’s a start. I slump back into the tuk tuk, exhausted and defeated.

I finally get a call from one of my colleagues. I explain how I probably won’t be going to the lunch after all as I was already halfway home.

We make it onto the 271. I can recognise it by the barrier with the yellow chevrons running down the centre. We need to turn around (a lot of the junctions meet the 271 where you cannot cross to turn left so you have to travel further up and do a U-turn). I manage to communicate this to my driver. I look out for the familiar landmarks that come before my turning. I must have missed them because we shoot past the road we needed to turn down. It’s fine, we can take the next right. I wait a bit. I get ready.

“Bat sadam!” I shout. “Bat sadam!” He hears; he turns. I grab onto the little rope acting as a hand rail. This road is rough and it quickly drops about three metres (this side of the 271 is a lot lower- the 271 is also known as the “dyke road” so it should give you a clue as to why).

“Bat sadam,” I say at the end of the road. I reach where I want to get off. “Chop chop!”

As I get off, I ask about the price.

“Six dollar,” he says.

“Six dollars?” I repeat. The driver looks a little unsure, so I obviously look unhappy.

“Six dollar,” he confirms. Today, my favourite tuk tuk driver charged me five dollars to go to the other side of Phnom Penh and back. That was probably five times the distance of what I travelled then. However, I was to exhausted to argue. I opened my wallet. I was confronted by about fifteen notes in both dollars and riel. My aching brain was finding it really hard to work out how much I needed, converting between the two currencies. I found a 20,000 riel note. How much was that again? Four or five dollars? 4,000 is one dollar. So that’s five dollars. I need 4,000 more.

At this point, he reached into my wallet. Never let anyone do this. (Next time you see me or my brother, ask about the time we got robbed by a heavily pregnant woman on the Champs-Élysées.) Fortunately, it didn’t end badly (for me or him); he took out two blue notes and four red ones (if they equal 4,000, work out how much each note is worth!). I nodded, said thank you despite not meaning it and trudged up the stairs to my apartment.

I kicked off my dusty flip-flops, whacked on the air-conditioning and go to sleep. Fortunately, I’m resilient enough to pick myself up and starting over. Your first years of teaching provide daily, if not hourly, practice of doing this.

When I woke up, I was starving. I looked in the fridge and all I saw bread, eggs and honey. Well, make do with what you get, I say. So I made French toast. So, I suppose it wasn’t too bad after all.


Other things I’m learning to live with

As this post is on the theme of struggles, I thought I would briefly tell you about some of the other things I’m adjusting to.

  1. Cold showers. The only way to get hot water is to use the kettle or to accidentally leave your bottle in the sun. I’ve got a reputation of taking a long time in the shower. I recently realised what the problem is: I don’t like the sensation of water on my head (yes, I’m that weird) so I often delay it as much as I can. It doesn’t help when you know it’s going to be icy water.
  2. Being the buffet table. All of Cambodia’s insects use my feet and legs like their own buffet table. I got bitten by this ridiculously tiny ant on the heel. My heel puffed up and went bright red. I daily have at least three large purple bumps added to my collection.
  3. Being sweaty. You don’t know how much roll on I use a day. If I know I’m out for a while, I’ve started packing a change of clothes.
  4. Dogs. Now I haven’t got my rabies vaccine because I thought, as I’m living in two major cities, how many dogs will there be? A lot is the answer. The risk of being bitten is not a major problem (until I meet the rabid one), but they fight throughout the night.
  5. Vertigo. This one isn’t because of having moved to Cambodia, but this year I’ve started suffering from dizzy spells. They’re worse when lying down, especially if I turn over quickly, and when I first get up. Hopefully, these spells will pass like the ones earlier in the year.

Like I said, I’m enjoying Cambodia. In a strange way these bad days make the whole experience richer and more rewarding. And I’ve still got the three boxes of chocolates to somehow get rid of. Now how will I manage that?

Thomas tries… deep fried tarantula


So, a friend, Michelle, and I went to Romdeng, which is a restaurant in Phnom Peng that seems to specialise in interesting food. The soul aim was to try deep fried tarantula. Michelle had tried to eat one before but chickened out at the last minute. We were both determined. We ordered it. At least one ended up in the bushes.

So did I eat it?

First, I was surprised by how much they looked like spiders. It sounds stupid but I had seen some in Siem Reap. They were battered so more resembled deep fried stars, like some novelty chicken nugget. However, as you can see, these look very much like tarantulas.

Then it’s what they felt like. They were oily, which wasn’t great. And they felt like, well spiders. Just a great big one. I was gagging before I even managed to put it in my mouth. I gritted my teeth and breathed deeply.


I found it really chewy and there were a lot of crispy bits. I managed to swallow some, but the cricket made me hesitant. I was afraid of something get stuck in my throat again. So quite a bit did end up in a paper napkin after about five minutes of chewing. 

People keep asking what it tasted like. I think pretty much like the lime and chilli sauce and oil. Otherwise there wasn’t much flavour to them. It was the texture I remember the most.

Michelle went for munch then swallow, which may have been the better way to do it.

However, as there were three we decided that we would ‘disappear’ the third. So, it ended up in the hedge.

We did have some rather nice rice wine with it for Dutch courage/ a palate cleanser. I did comment after that, “I’m not sure if my palate needs a cleanser, more like a baptism.”

Well, at least I tried it.

Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom

The most iconic image of Cambodia has to be Angkor Wat; it’s even on their national flag. So when I was in Siem Reap, I decided to visit it. Especially as I heard that they were going to double the price in the next few months (sorry parents, you’ll have to pay that when you come to visit me). I went with another colleague who was new to the country (she’d been in Cambodia three days longer than I had).

We asked our hotel to get a tuk tuk driver for us, and we tried to bargain on the price. I think we got it down to about $7-8. Seeing as he was going to be with us for at least two and half hours, it’s really a bargain. He took us through the short ride through the Siem Reap countryside to one of the ticket offices. These were more efficient than customs at Taipei, even though it felt the same. You were ushered to a desk.

“Stand here! Look here!” they told us pointing at a small camera. Startled and confused, I complied. Photo taken. “English? Twenty dollars.” Money handed exchanged hands, then I was passed my ticket, complete with yet another unflattering photograph. I will cherish it forever.


We mounted the tuk tuk carriage and continued our travels through the jungle. To our right there was a large body of water, and in the jungle I could just see glimpses of what seemed like silhouettes of tall structures. Slowly, out of the thick canopy and dense foliage emerged the walls that surrounded the Angkor Wat complex.

Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the world, being a temple complex that is about 163 hectares. Built in the first half of the 12th century, it was originally a Hindu temple, but was converted to a Buddhist temple towards the end of that century. It has been in use as a Buddhist place of worship, in some way or another, almost continuously since being built. This is one of the reasons as to why it is better preserved than the other structures within the Angkor area.

It consists of a central structure, which is the temple mountain. It represents the Hindu home of the gods, the five-peaked Mount Meru. This is then surrounded by walls, galleries and moats, that represent the surrounding mountain ranges and the ocean. This moat also provided protection from the encroaching jungle, which helped preserve the site. In fact, a lot of the damage done to the site was in the later-half of the 20th century by art thieves.

The site is beautiful and the structure is ornate, with carvings apparently on most visible surfaces. The climb to the top of temple mountain was a steep one. Before you leave your hotel, make sure you are suitably dressed. It is a religious site, still in use today, so modest dress is required for visitors if they wish to get to the top. The general rule is no shoulders, no knees. So, no vests, strappy tops, short shorts or glittery hot pants. (This is true of other sites in Cambodia, including the Royal Palace. It is not requested at Tuol Sleng Genocide Musem or Choeung Ek but I would advise it just to be respectful.) Also, if you’re a woman, don’t touch the monks.


There is a market area in the outer enclosure, which I went to, but it’s probably worth avoiding. After getting very hot climbing the temple mountain, I found the stall-keepers’ passionate entreaties a bit overwhelming. My response was probably a bit rude: I refused to make eye-contact to the point of turning my head sharply so they couldn’t get my attention. (This was a trick I learnt from a girl from my church when she was younger. If she didn’t want your attention, you knew about it.)

We then took a trip to Angkor Thom, which was a capital city built to the north of Angkor. It featured in Tomb Raider and, if I’m honest, I preferred the site (or the little I saw of it) to Angkor Wat. First, you get driven over a bridge across the city’s moat, then through a gate in the walls. (Unfortunately, my recording of this wasn’t good enough to put on the little film.) As you drive up to the Bayan (the city’s temple), you sometimes see hints of crumbling structures in the jungle. The Bayan has not weathered the years so well, but that made it even more enthralling. I felt a bit like Indianna Jones exploring dangerous, unknown ruins (the other tourists, tuk tuk drivers and English signposts ruined it a little bit, but when you have the imagination of an English teacher…).

Also, the journey reminded me a little of being back home. As we were driving through the jungle, we saw a variety of animals wondering around, obstructing traffic or just content wallowing in muddy puddles ignoring the passing humans, much like they do back in the New Forest. We saw pigs, cows, ducks and monkeys. Okay, so maybe the last one was not quite like the New Forest. Same but different (different being no monkeys or spectacular ancient monuments).

We didn’t spend too long there and there is a wealth of other places to visit around the site. We didn’t see the famous Elephant Gallery or visit any of the other temples (of which there are many). Your pass lets you into all of them and if you have a tuk tuk driver for the day, they’ll happily take you around them. Just agree on prices before and make sure you are clear about what you expect.

Two weeks in Siem Reap (2)

Although I’m getting used to Phnom Penh and all its crazy ways, I really fell in love with the Siem Reap in the ten days I spent in the city.  (Okay, yes I lied in the post title. But it rhymes*, and we all know the auditory aesthetics of the words are more important than the truth.) First, Siem Reap is a lot calmer than Phnom Penh: the traffic is more relaxed; it’s less crowded; the public places are a lot more open. Also, as I explored it, I felt I go to know it reasonably well. Just like there’s a divide between cat and dog people, there seems to be a divide between Phnom Pehn and Siem Reap people. Although I wouldn’t really say I have a preference of feline versus canine, I definitely felt a bit more at home in Siem Reap. That’s good, because I’m spending the majority of my time up there. Don’t get me wrong, I really like Phnom Penh and I’ll probably miss it after the ten or so weeks I’m here.

First, I discovered that I really love tuk tuk rides. Which is good, because we had quite a few of them, including to Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, as well as various venues in Pub Street and the local area (which somewhat lacks the insobriety the name would suggest).


Near our hotel and conference venue, there was a Vietnamese restaurant. I’m useless so I can’t remember the name, but I can tell you it’s on National Route 6 and it has what seemed to be a picture of the smiling cow from Dairylee on the doors. It was pretty good, and there was a reasonable amount of variety. On the first day of the conference, many of the team ended up there quite independently of each other. It was nice being able to be introduced to one another before the meetings had started. The start of the meeting was slightly delayed because there was a torrential downpour and we had to wait for a minibus to pick us up to do what would have been a five-minute walk. We also went there later in the week as it was so close and the food was nice.

We also tried various places in and around Pub Street. One of the two of note are La Boulangerie. Here the food is good and there’s a make your own pizza option. You get a little sheet and you tick what options you want (like ordering school dinners when you were little). I had to resist ticking all the options (except the anchovies, they can keep them). I was ridiculously excited given as it was just pizza, but it seems especially exciting when you’ve been consuming a lot of rice.

Then there’s Blue Pumpkin. More people advised going to Blue Pumpkin than Angkor Wat when I mentioned I was in Siem Reap on Facebook. It’s an ice cream and cake shop, with a ‘cool lounge’ on top. Often when things promote itself as cool, you think it probably isn’t. It’s like the embarrassing uncle that dances at weddings, and says things like “hey kids, I’m cool, I’m hip.” (Fortunately, I’ve never had an uncle like that. Unfortunately, my cousins have.) However, Blue Pumpkin have got the meaning of cool spot-on. First, their air conditioning does work very well up there, which, to the sweaty Brit, is a relief. (“How many times are you going to mention your sweat on this blog?” you may well ask. I don’t know, is the answer to that.) The design of the upstairs lounge is brilliant. It has great seating areas and colourful pieces of print design on the wall. However, the pièce de resistance is the long bench along the wall. It’s about the width of a single bed, and high enough that you pretty much have to climb onto them. I wonder how many people have fallen asleep there.


We also went to the Angkor Mondial restaurant. It’s a buffet restaurant, selling Cambodian and South-East Asian cuisine (very much like a Global Buffet in the UK). Some people will say that the food is not as high a quality as you would get elsewhere, which is true, but it’s really good for people who are just starting out on trying local dishes. Rather than ordering a whole dish you don’t like, you can try little bits of a variety of dishes. You can experiment with the various sweet desserts and there’s an urn of tea so you have a constant supply.

It’s not just the food, however, which makes the place worth visiting. There is a stage, and while you are eating or choosing your food you are also treated to traditional apsara dancing. Some of it is slow and stately, where each turn of the hand has a particular meaning (that I don’t know). However, these were interspersed with folk dances, which put our Morris dancing to shame. They essentially tell a story (usually of love) with different characters. My favourite was the fisherman’s dance. It was just a sweet love story between a fisherman and a fisher girl, using baskets as props. I can tell you, these Cambodian dancing girls know how to toy with a boy’s heart (the character’s, not mine). All this for $6 (£4.60).

Here are some tips that I learnt or have picked up off others along the way:

  • don’t order the beef- it’s probably not going to make you ill, it’s just quite tough. When you see the cows out in the countryside it might give you an idea to why. If there are fish, chicken or vegetable options, go for those instead (and it’ll also help your cholesterol)
  • check your ice. Some people avoid ice completely, but that’s not always necessary in Cambodia. If it’s round with a hole, it’s been ordered in and it’s clean. If it’s crushed up or oddly shaped, it’s probably not. You can see people making the crushed ice at the back of the Russian markets
  • clean your cutlery and your cans. In most Cambodian restaurants, there is a box of tissues on each table, and a bin at one end. Give your cutlery and cans a quick wipe with a tissue and chuck the tissue away. You can also put any bones or bits you don’t want in the bin too rather than have them hang around your plate.
  • Spoon not fork. You only get provided a fork and spoon in most places (or chopsticks if you’re eating noodles). It’s the spoon that goes to your mouth not the fork- that’s just used to manoeuvre food into the spoon.

I also had the chance to visit Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, but I’ll upload that later (when I’m on a Wifi network and not using my mobile data- there may be a video).

(*More technically, it is the assonance of the “ee” sound in weeks and Siem Reap that makes is interesting. Note how it’s pronounced See-em (as in “look, I can see ’em over there!”) not Sigh-em. You could go completely local and just call it Sim Rip- much like how we render Southampton “soufam’un”.)

Two weeks in Siem Reap

I would love to tell you that the lack of substantial updates was because I have had an NGO-superhero lifestyle for the last two weeks. I would love tell you how I saved a pod of river dolphins from nets in the Mekong, or how I built and started up an orphanage from scratch, or how I saved a whole city from debt to evil foreign corporations. First, however, I am no superhero. (If I were a superhero, I would be Sweatman. I would sweat so profusely that the villain would feel repulsed and be compelled to stop whatever villainous activity they were undertaking.) Second, I don’t think NGO work is ever that glamorous. I do want to write a post on voluntourism and why what I’m doing hopefully isn’t that but that’s for later. In this post, I will concentrate on the “work” that I was doing while is Siem Reap; I will save the fun and adventures for another time.

I wrote in my previous post that I had taken a coach to Siem Reap (on which I had my encounter with the cricket). Like I said, it was great to meet other members of my organisation. Some of them I met on the coach; some of them I would meet later. There are people working all over Cambodia in the organisation, some are based in Phnom Penh, some in Siem Reap and others in Takeo province. But it was great to have most people in one place at once. Later in the week, we even had some of the Thai team join us as well as visitors from Singapore and Brazil. That exemplifies one thing I love about the organisation: how international and diverse it is. There was at least one representative (if not two) from every continent (barring Antarctica, of course). The other thing that I love about this organisation is the unity. There is a vast spectrum of people within the group, different nationalities and different temperaments. I’m a British introvert, who shared a room with a Brazilian extrovert; you’d be hard to find two people that were such polar opposites. And yet, there was a sense of cohesion and care that everyone had for one another. Everyone was welcoming and kind, you quickly fell into the team and you felt like you had known the group for years. It was a real blessing to have spent those ten days with such great people.

However, as well as welcoming you into the team, they also wanted you to play a part. Despite being a newbie, I still had jobs to do. I was on the minute-taking team (as I’m a native English writer); I also ended up looking after the children of families that were there. Both of these were valuable but humbling experiences.

Being a minute-taker meant that you had to quickly learn the processes, acronyms and key terms of the organisation and this particular team. You had to listen carefully as to what was being said and, although I felt thrown in at the deep end at times, this helped to feel a part of the team. Also, it meant that, as I had to keep track of what was being said, I often had a good grasp of the direction the discussions had taken. This meant that I could play a part in shaping the meetings and decisions (I would often be saying things like, “The question about the thingy has not been addressed yet” or “we probably need to clarify such and such a bit”), and, despite being the newest person on the team, it felt like they valued my contributions and my thoughts. So, that’s the valuable part of the minute taking.

The humbling part is when it came to reviewing the minutes. The whole team checks the minutes just to confirm that they make sense, especially as people not at the meetings will be reading it and it will have to be understandable for them. However, the emphasis was on brevity. This meant a lot of my work (and that of the other minute-takers) was brutally axed. I heard “that can go,” or “that needs to be reworded” a lot. Probably less than a quarter of the original material was left as it was.

Working with the children was also rewarding, and also humbling. There were only a few children, and they were all so brilliant. They all had different characters and it was great to get to know them. They were also open to interacting with you, even if they didn’t really understand what you were saying (most of the children did not have English as a first language). It was just nice to be silly, play games and do various craft activities. (I learnt how far the basic principles of cutting and sticking could go- very far as it turns out.) Take a look at some of the fantastic artwork produced.


But there were a few experiences that were pretty humbling. I had to cut strips of coloured paper for one of the craft activities. One of the children, who is around six years old, looked up to me and said, “You know, it would be easier if you folded the paper and cut along the folds.” Yes, little six-year-old boy, yes it would. This wasn’t helped by the fact that English is his second or third language, and he was still able to advise me in it. This boy is already winning at life more than I am at 28.

Later that week, I discovered that this boy spoke French at home. Trying to regain some credibility as a functioning adult, I thought I would use some of the few French phrases that I know. After I uttered some French sounding words, he looked up at me baffled. Then he sweetly smiled and said, “I do not understand what you are saying,” and then continued with his colouring. “Okay,” I thought, “I’ll just crawl back into the monolingual hole from whence I came.”

Cambodia afternoons are either hot or wet and rainy because it has been hot. This meant that the parents thought letting the children have a time of wet-play would be a great way to help them cool down. The parents all knew about this, so they came prepared with changes of clothes for the children. I, however, was not prepared. So the children all got changed, while the parents set up a paddling pool and a wet-play table, filling them up with a hose. As the children came out, the parents uttered something like, “we’ll be inside if you need us,” which can be translated to “good luck.” I hoped that as the children didn’t know me that well I might stay reasonably dry. I was wrong. (Did I mention that there was a hose?) When one of the parents came out, she didn’t actually realise I was soaking. I was so uniformly wet, she thought my clothes were that colour, whereas they should have been a number of shades lighter. When I pointed this out to her, she just said, “oh” and looked a little guilty, carrying her child off to get changed into nice, dry clothes.

This experience reminded me of a time earlier this year. I was at a training session, run by the UK branch of the organisation, for people going to various parts of the world. One of those on the session told me, “You know, you’re one of those people who are really easy to mock.” I thought at the time that perhaps he meant that I quickly put people at ease and they feel like they’ve known me for years; people feel comfortable enough to have a joke with me. No, he meant that I’m really easy to mock. If there is anyone that is going to be teased, soaked with water or otherwise humiliated, it’s going to be me. Even despite the language barrier, the children were able to sense it. Fortunately, teaching has ripped any sense of ego out of me, so it was like water off a duck’s back (pun intended).

After the first week, we had four days of training. Although, perhaps, not immediately applicable in what I will be doing for the ten months I am in Siem Reap, a lot of the principles I will be able to return home. I’ve already started thinking and planning about how I’m going to apply the ideas.

As I hinted at earlier, it wasn’t all work for ten days. There were opportunities to explore Siem Reap and the surrounding area (including Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom). I will write about these in my next post, so watch this space.

Thomas tries… fried cricket

I maintain that I will try any food or beverage once (unless it is illegal or highly toxic). This will probably be a regular feature of my blog, where I taste something for the first time. Now, I will need to be sensitive about the comments I make. Just because I like something, it doesn’t make it inheritently good and if I don’t like it, it’s not necessarily bad. It’s just a case of personal preference. There will also be a large cultural element to this as well. Just because the average British person may not be used to a certain taste palate, does not mean it should be dismissed. A part of this is about me adapting to my surrounding culture, and attempting to integrate myself with elements of Cambodian life. It will never be a straightforward process, and some of it may involve me gritting my teeth and getting on with it. I’m sure the saying “beggars can’t be choosers” will soon become a personal motto.

About two weeks ago now, I caught a coach from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap in order to go to a conference for my job as English teacher. I went with various people from my organisation, so it was quite a fun trip and it was a nice time to get to know different people. We had two stops and at one place they sold fried insects (crickets and I think maggots).

I decided that it probably wouldn’t be wise to try it while on a coach, and I’d have to buy a big bag anyway just to try one, so it’d be a waste. However, a boy on our coach, who is rather partial to edible invertebrates, bought a bag and offered me one. So, here’s the evidence of me trying it.

I’m quite glad the video cut short. I managed not to gag until I reached my seat at the back of the bus. The mixture of the dried spices on it plus a realisation of what I just put in my mouth nearly made me heave. As you can see, it was surprisingly difficult to get through, and in my eagerness to end the experience I perhaps swallowed somewhat prematurely. This resulted in something (perhaps a leg, perhaps a part of the outer shell) getting lodged in the back of my throat. I have quite an active gag reflex as it is, which I was doing my best ro surpress. Fortunately, I had the can of coke on hand. I’ve never got through a can so quickly.

I’m currently compiling a list of things that I might have to try:

  • dried crocodile,
  • frogs,
  • salad with red tree ants, 
  • banana blossom salad, 
  • white choco cheese filled cakes.

So there’s no worries about me running out of things to film!