Last week I went on a trip to Cambodia. The purpose of the outing was to visit a remote school being run by a charity who are just starting to set up schools in Myanmar. We wanted to assess whether our school could get involved in such a project and what that might look like. We left on Monday afternoon and came back late on Friday night. On the trip there were 6 members of staff, 3 parents and 3 students (the students were not the children of the parents). Lindsey has told me about hundreds of school trips over the years usually involving hundreds of kids but this was my first ever school trip with actual students. I have to say that it was a pretty easy introduction with all three of the students being practically adults and certainly very mature for their age.
We flew into the capital, Phnom Penh, on the wonderful Emirates airline which flies from Dubai to Phnom Penh with a stop over in Yangon on the way. Why all airlines don’t have the entertainment system starting from the moment you get on the plane is totally baffling to me. No one complains about a delayed takeoff when you’re 40 minutes in to your first movie. I had a window seat and from the air Phnom Penh looked really nice and all lit up. We met our guide from the charity in the airport and I was initially thrilled that we would be going to our hotel in tuk tuks! Four roomy tuk tuks duly showed up and we climbed aboard complete with all our luggage. It was a little cooler there than Yangon so the ride started out really well. Unfortunately, during the ride, a motorbike pulled alongside and snatched the bag of our guide. He thinks he was targeted as he happened to have quite a bit of money with him and worst of all his passport with a visa for the UK that he’d only picked up that day. That took the shine off of the evening which was otherwise uneventful.
The next morning we ate breakfast and left for the 8 hour drive to Krong Ban Lung which is a regional capital in the North Eastern part of the country not far from the border with Laos and Vietnam. The Cambodian roads were quite good on the whole and our driver was clearly very experienced. I was only a little bit worried when a vigorous downpour of rain seemed to have no effect on the speed or manner of driving. Fortunately, this didn’t happen very often. Cambodian houses are all built on stilts about 10 feet off the ground. I guess this is for flooding but also to shelter livestock. Almost all the houses were made of wood and some had elaborately carved staircases.
Other than the houses most of the rest of the countryside was paddy fields of rice. Apparently this is an important time of the year for rice so the school we were visiting was not officially in session. This way the children can help with the rice crop. There were lots of cows and some buffalo but not too many birds that I could identify. At one point we had a detour as a bridge was being repaired or replaced and had to take a smaller dirt road. Alongside this road there were lots of stalls many of whom were selling fried snakes! The snakes were either in tanks waiting to be fried (no doubt alive) or in piles after having been fried.
On the way our guide told us a little bit about himself. He was born in 1977, the same year as Lindsey which was when the Khmer Rouge was in power. They were deposed in 1979 but the effects on the country were devastating. At the age of 7 he was able to attend a monk’s school for three years before joining a state school. His description of his first 7 years was one of sheer poverty so he has done well to get to where he is now. He told us that the Khmer Rouge wanted people out of the cities and at one time Phnom Penh had as few as 70 people (we checked the number several times). Now there are three million.
There are a couple of tourist attractions near Krong Ban Lung which meant that there was a reasonable hotel we could stay at right on a lake. The town itself is tiny with only a few roads but there was a nice laid back feel to it. After our marathon road trip, it was great to be able to have a shower and relax. We ate dinner in a nearby restaurant but the food wasn’t great. All the chicken dishes had chopped up chicken with all the gristle and bones which wasn’t very pleasant.
The next morning I got up early and went for a walk around the lake. There were a couple of birds I couldn’t identify but did manage to id the red-whiskered bulbul. Then we went to the actual school itself which was about a 45 minute drive away down some pretty treacherous roads. We needed 4 x 4s to get there at all. Despite the fact that the school wasn’t in session about 70 kids showed up. They were lined up on either side and clapped us in which was nice. The previous day we split into 4 groups to teach different lessons to 4 age groups of sweet. I was in the ‘individual logic’ group. Fortunately, there was also a real teacher in our group so the kids didn’t have to suffer my own individual logic which, let’s face it, doesn’t really exist. I should have gone for music! The kids had no English but we did have a translator. Despite the lack of a common language the day went well and the kids were pretty well behaved and attentive. During the outside activity I taught the kids how throw a frisbee and a couple of kids got really into it. Teaching them how to play Ultimate though was a step too far.
The next day we had a meeting with the regional headquarters of the organisation and then had some time to visit two of the local sites. One was a waterfall which also had an elephant riding option. I did not do the actual ride but did get to stroke him which was nice. This is the first elephant we’ve seen on our trip so far. I’m sure the first of many. The other site was a lake in the crater of an old volcano. Most people swam but I chose not to. That evening was fairly chilled out and we ate in the hotel but again the food was not great.
Finally we had the gruelling trip back to Phnom Penh on the last day. We got there at about 5pm and then had a couple of hours before having to go back to the airport. We were right downtown and were able to peer in to one of the main palaces which looked very impressive. This was right on the Mekong river which we had also seen earlier in the trip. It’s a pretty massive river and I would say it was around 750m or more wide where we were. We left Phnom Penh at about 11:30pm and landed around 1am local time. (There is half an hour time difference). The captain announced that in Yangon the temperature was 32 degrees celsius, 90 degrees Fahrenheit – welcome home!
That sounds like a really grueling trip, Gav. But fascinating…especially the touch an elephant part.
What an amazing trip! You saw some things that I didn’t see when I was in Cambodia — like the fried snakes. (Poor snakes!) I did encounter chicken like that, though — it’s a thing, just chopping it up with a cleaver and throwing it in the pot. I never got to Phnom Penh and wish I had.