My time in Cambodia… Part 1

I have not posted much about the time I spent in Phnom Penh on my volunteering stint so I thought I would some of this enforced stay at home time to put some words down. I think it will be a post of things I actually did and then some thoughts or observations that I had. I have been looking back at pictures that I had taken and I forgot what a super time I had but I will admit that at times I really did not like being there – I think that if I had been 20 years younger, it would have been different.

So many times I had to keep reminding myself that I was in a totally different culture and that meant that the way people did things and how they lived is going to be different. I might not enjoy or even understand why things happened the way they did, but that did not mean it was wrong and I had to just accept.

I arrived back into Phnom Penh via Singapore after Heidi’s funeral so was somewhat subdued, but I was so much looking forward to a new experience, a new world and was ready to go!

My volunteering was being facilitated by Asia Volunteer Network ( which I chose because they are a local organisation and the money I paid would cover their operating costs plus my room and board, it was important to me that any money I paid stayed local. My accommodation at the start was a volunteer hostel in the Russian Market area of the city, properly known as Tuol Tumpoung. I was lucky as I got a single room with a bathroom and the family that ran the place were just so lovely. The mother was the housekeeper and her 2 children also lived there and they interacted with the volunteers so was fun, even with the language barrier!

I arrived on Friday and my orientation etc was not due until the Monday so I spent the weekend wandering around the local area and then going into the central Riverside area. I didn’t see many volunteers as weekends is when they tend to travel around.

I am trying to recall my initial thoughts or impressions but I can’t! I had been there before but I had that little incident with the mosquito, but I think that I was just so happy to be there! I felt very at home as it was very much like Bombay – loud, busy, loads of people around, cars, motorbikes with some very strange smells!

I was lucky with the group of volunteers that I met up with that first week, we were all newbies all doing different things, teaching, working with disabled children and microfinance.

We worked during the week and then planned trips around the country at weekends, our first was Siem Reap and the Ankor Wat Temples, which I was glad to get back to as I was able to see the other temples in the complex. They were amazing, Bayon Temple, built during late 12th century by King Jayavarman VII and is dedicated to Buddha with four sided face carvings looking down on you as you walk around, and Ta Prohm which is known as the Tomb Raider temple as it was the site used in the film.

People say that the best time to see the Ankor Wat complex is at sunrise, so, at 4.30am on a Saturday morning, we made our way to the complex. Pitch black, we gingerly walked our way onto the grounds. There were loads of people which was an experience in itself, all with cameras which spoilt things a bit, I will confess that I was one of them! Even though it was a very touristy thing to do, it was amazing to see the colours change as the sky became lighter and we could see the outline of the temple. It was all very calm and quiet, some people were meditating, most just standing and watching quietly as dawn broke over the temple. Was magnificent and well worth the 4am alarm call.

Sunrise over Ankor Wat

It was a really amazing weekend, exhausting but amazing. There was the floating village, which was exactly as the name suggests, a group of floating houses where people lived. There were schools, churches, temples and shops!! Amazing place. I did hear afterwards though that they were Vietnamese encouraged by the government to live there so that there was something for the tourists to see. Whether that was true or not, I have no idea but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was!!

My first trip to Siem Reap early January was very different to this second one, we had a hostel in the tourist centre this one and it is horrible, honestly I thought I was in the centre of Magaluf or something! Neon city, loud, banging music coming from every building and even a wrestling match! During the day, things were pretty quiet as I guess people were sleeping off hangovers or whatever, or out seeing the sites. I sound judgmental, I know. There is a very apparent and obvious drug trade but it keeps the economy going. I really would have liked to have gone again as I didn’t see every thing that I had wanted to, it was really hot and exhausting so we had to pace ourselves. Also I lost my pictures (long story) which I am really annoyed with myself about but I can’t change it and at least I have the memories of being there.

Regarding the voluntary work, my placement was with an NGO called Samatapheap Khnom Organisation (SKO) which was set up to enpower women to fulfill their potential and improving the living conditions of the poorest and most vulnerable families in the community. It has a group of social workers that go out into the local villages to talk to women about domestic violence, education for children and how they can improve their own economic situation. Not speaking the language nor being a social worker meant that my contribution was fairly minimal, but I helped where I could. I went out into the community with the social workers to see the impact that they were having. I saw some really shocking things, the poverty, housing etc. SKO was funded by large international aid organisations like UNICEF and aid funds from France and Australia to target DV, budgeting training and education. One of the interventions is providing small grants so that women can set up micro businesses such as selling items from their homes, buying sewing machines to make sacks for cement and training for childcare to provide cheap childcare in the village so parents can go out to work. We visited some of the homes, some were just a wooden shack where the bed turned into the dining table in the day, the air full of cement dust and the cat eating the fish earmarked for lunch. One lady and her family lived in one room that cost $50 a month and was in a block next door to the local rubbish tip.

My first thought was oh my God, what is this slum? But then I was ashamed and sad that a, I could think like that, and b, people had no choice but to live like that.

One of the most common occupations is garbage collection – yes – garbage collection. Women, in the main, walk around the city with a trolley or cart and pick up cans, glass, cardboard and paper which they sell to recycling merchants. There are charities that even provide large carts to families so that they can earn money this way.

This brings me on to one of my observations – that Cambodia has a huge garbage problem. It’s like they don’t care, they just pile up rubbish and I am not sure if the local council actually cares about collections. The result is that there are piles of rubbish everywhere and then they burn it with the result that there are always piles of smoldering rubbish adding to the already polluted air.

They also have this extremely reliant relationship on plastic, I mean everyone uses single use plastic every day from the packaging for their breakfast, coffee/tea, lunch, snack and dinner. It looked like no one cooks at home, all along the streets are food carts serving noodles and rice, congee and soup all day. Some people eat on the pavement, others do take away so the items are put in foam boxes and then placed into small plastic bags. Coffee is in plastic cups and then put into plastic holders so people can hang them from the handlebars of their bikes or carry them easily.

This plastic makes up part of the rubbish that is burnt so you can imagine what the air is like, and the rivers that run through PP are covered in plastic, food and other things that I won’t mention. I really don’t understand it, people just chuck things on the ground, they live with piles of rubbish around them and then set fire to them???? – This is one of those characteristics that I don’t understand but have to accept.

End of Part 1………… Part 2 coming shortly!!

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