I’m trying to build up my repertoire of Khmer songs. Christian ones are particularly helpful: I know the tunes and I can get the gist of what they are singing as it’s pretty close to the English. Therefore, I’ve been using simple and rather repetitive songs to build my knowledge of Khmer words and phrases.
Again, I’ve transcribed it and transliterated it twice, using two different systems. Read (or don’t) about some of the thought processes behind how I’ve done it here. It goes some way to explain why what you read might not be exactly what you hear, especially in songs.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
Whilst I am in Siem Reap, I’ll be working in a school called Bridge of Hope. This is how they define themselves on their website:
We are a family outreach project in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Our vision is to see vulnerable and exploited children, and their families, overcome their hopelessness and find true peace and hope.
They work with local families and children who are working on the streets, as servants or are at risk of being used in the sex trade. They will have missed out on schooling and they need help with literacy skills in order to integrate back into government schools.
The school also works with families, running education projects and food programs.
I’ll be working in the school, getting involved with these. I’m also sure I’ll help with some of the English classes. Also, they hope that my experience of teaching in the UK will enable me to have some input in their teaching practices (although I’m uncertain as to what help I can be!). Then there will just be general admin and checking the English of any communications that go out.
So it’s all very exciting and I’ll see what happens.
The art of the goodbye is entirely lost on British people. I find them so awkward that I have been know to just sneak off in social occasions. I don’t do extreme emotions very well; I try to avoid them by waffling and saying stupid things. However, because I don’t often miss things or get particularly homesick, I didn’t realise how difficult I’d find this round of goodbyes.
Last week, I moved from the home I’ve been in for the last five years. So that meant saying goodbye to housemates I’ve lived with and become good friends with. Those goodbyes were difficult. It was strange closing the door on the room you slept in nearly every night for years, knowing you wouldn’t again.
Today, I said goodbye to two good friends. We went to a cool board game café in Southampton and played games. When it was time to say goodbye, I definitely reverted to awkward babbling. When I finally did leave, I was pretty sad.
This all seems a bit ridiculous, especially as it is only for a year. Furthermore, I’ve said goodbye to people countless times, often for similar amounts of time. I don’t know why it feels harder this time round.
There is the case that there will be some significant life moments I will not be there for (friends getting married, babies being born). Furthermore, a lot of people my age are in life stages where things change. There’s no guarantee that everyone here now will be still in the area when I get back.
But, it isn’t a permanent goodbye. I’ll be back. And there’s always Skype.
Never having been to Cambodia before, a part of the adventure is getting to learn about the country. I’ve done some research, but until I’ve been there I’m hardly going to be an expert. Even after a year there, I’m still only going to be acquainted with the country. It would take decades for me to feel like I know the country well. So, I’m relying on Lonely Planet’s guide to help me out.
Before this, I knew very little about the country. I could tell you the name of the capital city, but couldn’t spell it (Phnom Penh, if you’re wondering). I would have been able to vaguely place it on a map, but not with absolute certainty. The only three things I could tell you that was in any way related to it was Angkor Wat, the Khmer Rouge and sex trafficking. So here are some things I’ve been learning.
Cambodia, or officially the Kingdom of Cambodia, borders Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. It is a ceremonial monarchy, which reflects its history as a country of powerful kingdoms up until the 14th century. Since then, the country’s history had been turbulent; it has been subjected to Thai, Vietnamese, French, Japanese and U.S. political aggression. Cambodia was greatly affected by the Vietnam War (1970-75), for this to be followed by the Khmer Rouge’s regime. During this time, the educated, wealthy or military Cambodians were slaughtered in their millions. The rest of the country was forced into labour. In 1979, the Vietnamese defeated the Khmer Rouge, but civil war continued until 1991. It is this recent history that perhaps provides a backdrop for how Cambodia fairs currently.
Cambodia is a poor country with a population of 15 million. Around 38% of these live below the poverty line. Political corruption is still a present issue and Cambodia is cursed by a horrendous sex trade that often involves children. There are areas of Cambodia that are still haunted by its past in the form of land mines; it may have as many as six million unexplored mines and ordnance left. This also means that it has some of the highest levels of amputees in the world.
This makes the country sound horrendous. It is not (as far as I can tell). Millions of tourists flock to the country to see its beauty. Angkor is a major tourist attraction. There are hundreds of temples that were built over hundreds of years during the Angkorian period, culminating in Angkor Wat, the largest religious building in the world. The nearest city, Siem Reap, is where I’ll be living. The city seems geared for tourists, with even on road named ‘Pub Street’ and what can only be an Irish bar: Molly Malone’s. It probably does mean that at least some areas of Siem Reap may not be the best reflection of true Cambodia.
It is perhaps this mix of beauty and tragedy that’s made Cambodia such an intriguing place to find out about. I’m really going to enjoy telling you all about what I discover whilst I’m there.
Before you get excited and jump to the conclusion that I’m paying for everyone to come to Cambodia with me, I’m not. That’d be absurd.
But you are invited to something! I’m having a farewell picnic. So, join me and my friends, colleagues, relatives and members of the general public who have meandered into the group. Here are the details:
When? Saturday 9th July, 4 pm
Where? The Common. Probably at the top because there’s a music festival on at the same time.
There’s a large open space near the top. If you’re coming from The Cowherds, continue up the tree-lined path that starts to the right of it. Pass the boating pond (the concrete hole full of algae with filthy dogs splashing in and out), and onto a clear area with a cross roads. I’ll be somewhere there.
If you’re starting from the Highfield side, go under The Avenue via the underpass, and you’re pretty much there. If you’re starting anywhere else… you’re on your own.
What should I bring? Cakes, drinks, picnic things.
Please don’t feel the need to bring gifts or anything else. First, because I really appreciate you just being there. Second, I have a limited amount of space in my luggage so I might not be able to keep it anyway!
It’d be great to see you there! If the weather looks rubbish, stay tuned for a change of plan!
It’s about 48 days until I fly to Cambodia. (I’ve not been counting; I tried to book my insurance policy but it wouldn’t let me and told me I had to wait 18 days until I could.) That’s not long at all. That’s around six and a half weeks.
So, here are the answers to all the things you wanted to know about my trip!
Haven’t you already written a blog about this?
Well, yes. But as MI6 (who I secretly work for) thought it could expose some specific details of the operation they politely requested I take the blog down. Essentially, for one reason or another, I started the blog again. You can ask why, but you probably won’t get the truth: it makes for dull reading.
So Cambodia? That’s in South America?
No, that would be Colombia.
You’re thinking of Cameroon or Comoros.
Asia. That’s what I thought first.
Uh huh. Sure you did. It is in Asia, between Thailand and Vietnam.
So what’s it like?
Well, I don’t know from personal experience just yet. That’s what this blog is for. I’ve heard it’s hot and tropical. It’s a poor country, ravaged by political turmoil during the twentieth century. Much of the country, however, is beautiful.
Have you got your jabs done?
Yes and no. I have got most my boosters done. I decided against getting the Japanese encephalitis vaccine due to cost and the limited likelihood of getting it. I also haven’t had my rabies vaccine. There were three reasons: the cost, I’d have to get treatment regardless of whether I got it or not, I’m in a city with a hospital. Also, I hate needles and they’re meant to be particularly painful, but that wasn’t a main reason (who am I kidding? It was the only reason). However, I’m now regretting this decision but it’s a bit too late to change it.
Last week I met someone who spent time in Vietnam and didn’t get their rabies on the same reasoning that I did. The conversation took a turn for the worse when she said, “what no one tells you is that the treatment is different if you haven’t had your jabs. If you had it done it’s just the one injection. If you haven’t had it it’s four needles, each as thick as your thumb: one in each thigh and one in each arm. I know because I got bitten by a dog. The injections were the most painful thing I’ve ever experienced.” I nearly cancelled my flights then and there.
What are you doing?
Working for the secret services. In reality, I’m working for the Bridge of Hope school in Siem Reap.
For the first month or so I’ll be doing some training and language learning in Phnom Penh as well.
Where are you living?
Somewhere in Siem Reap.
What day do you actually leave?
Thursday 21st July. I fly via Amsterdam and Taipei.
How long are you there for?
What will you miss most?
I think it will be a bit of a surprise. The things you think you’ll miss you mentally guard yourself against, then I expect something really bizarre, like the look of our traffic lights, becomes something you long for (I’m sat looking out on a busy junction, which accounts for that ridiculous example).
I’ll probably miss the little people in my life. My niece is fantastic and provides a lot of joy when I get to see her. A lot of my friends have wonderful kids, and one couple has another due. It’s always a privilege to see children grow up, so I’ll be sad to miss a year of that. They’ll be so different by the time I return.
I’ll miss my year ten class a lot. I’m sad that I don’t get to see them finish their school journey and I know some of them might find it more difficult without me. It’s the only thing that has actually caused a tear. (Just the one, and no one saw it so it doesn’t count. I’m not sentimental at all).
How can I support you?
Comment on the blog! Please do. I know it sounds needy but I will really appreciate the kind words from other people, especially as the run up gets stressful and when I’m in a new and foreign country. Also, ask questions! Tell me what you want to know!