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Open Features: Up Country: Where French Provincial Meets Buddha.

...The track led us over a real wood slatted suspension bridge that swung high over the swift flowing river as the motorbikes trundled across. The spirit of ‘Indiana Jones’ was with us. I think it was Kay who uttered a little whimper as we realised that we really were going across, but it could have been me...

Anne Veronica Steward continues her vivid and engaging account of working as a VSO volunteer in Cambodia.

To read two earlier articles by Anne about her time in Cambodia please click on



Scary moment.

Seven o'clock in the morning and we were off to Battambang to see where my compadre and I would be would be living and working for two years. Did we have all the paperwork we needed? Had we packed suitable clothing? Really crucially, would we be able to form a good working relationship with our employers. I was heading for the Provincial Teacher Training Centre. The day started well, in an air-conditioned taxi booked for us by VSO.

It is best to book two seats each or you will find yourself crammed two to a seat, with everyone's baggage crowding the passengers even further. One volunteer told us of her journey in a taxi carrying a large and slushy birthday cake for her landlady's son on her knee. She found herself sharing the back seat with four others, all with bags and baggage. There were two Cambodians on the front passenger seat. The cake arrived in perfect shape, in marked contrast to the volunteer who was totally frazzled by the time she got to her destination. Obviously the bakery was accustomed to the rigours of taxi transport, and packed superbly.

Transport is a big challenge here, but the human spirit being as it is, they manage. I saw a fridge being carried on a cyclo, and we witnessed precision driving of motorbikes worthy of the Edinburgh Tattoo. Two guys had a lengthy piece of scaffolding between them, and they were travelling in tandem. Oh, I so wanted to photograph them taking a corner! But there was I, perched on the back of a motor scooter, helmeted and clutching on to the handholds, and trying not to drop my folder.

But that came later.

A couple of hours along the road on our five hour journey the air-conditioning ceased to function, so we had the windows down except when we were enveloped in clouds of red dust on the lengthy road works. That was when we stifled and worried as the driver still pressed firmly on the horn and overtook great trucks. Maybe he had 'Special Powers'. In the bad stretches, there is no right or wrong side, just the best track to go. No worries about left or right, just the least hazardous route through the craters and muddy pools of indeterminate depth.

We stopped for breakfast at a roadside restaurant. Our Khmer companion had his usual chicken noodle soup. We had delicious green tea and French-style bread. Rice and noodles, and more rice are the mainstay, but we are new to the country yet, and a bit of fresh toast with butter and marmalade sounds so good. We were offered small dishes of condensed milk to dip bread into once. Very kind, but.........Why is breakfast such a big deal for me? Thai, Vietnamese, Khmer food are fine later in the day. I'm just being a wimp, and I'll get over it.

We rattled along through swathes of rice fields; glimpsed far off pagodas perched on top of forested hills and watched the people. A bizarre sight was an elderly lady trundling her I.V. stand, complete with bag along the dusty road.

Wide boulevards and a huge, kneeling statue announced our arrival in the French influenced town of Battambang. The main streets seemed to be designed for cars, but are full of pony carts, cyclists and teeming hordes of motorbikes. There are some larger vehicles, but cars are not yet common. Then they are going to have a crashing time before they modify their road manners. The courtesy of the people and the lack of speed make it possible to cross with care and to pull out at random, but it will be a hairy business when cars really come to town.

Battambang is split by a great muddy river Sangkar that winds its way to the magical dream that is the Ankor Wat. We crossed by the widest bridge, but the one for the bikes is much more fun. Pedestrians push bikers and motor bikers all use it, and it has knee threatening metal posts to keep the cars off. They wouldn't fit anyway, but I suppose some mad person would give it a go. It’s called ‘Breakdown Bridge”!

There is also a ferry, with a guy pulling on a rope to take you across in a shallow boat. Got to try that at some point.

The hotel was decked with flowering shrubs, and was cool and inviting and we found that we were to have a bathroom with a warm shower! A great treat.

I do enjoy the different colours on the same bougainvillea so that you have yellow, orange and pink flowers for the price of one.

After lunch in the cafe next door, all draped with tropical plants that reminded me of Gauguin's paintings, we went to meet our employers. That was the first of many meetings where we were welcomed with great courtesy, presented with formidable arrays of statistics, and treated to conversations that made us feel our dreadful lack of useful language. The shortest of conversations take forever when the speaker does his bit, waits while it is translated, we respond, and wait while that is translated. You hope you still retain the first bit by the time you have finished.

Never mind, I've found my secret weapon. My director, a sweet man, speaks French. I am frantically trying to resurrect my school hood memories of the language to supplement my lack of coherent Khmer.

The schools I visited were bleak places compared with schools in the U.K. Piles of rubble and other dross litter the grounds and pathways are hazardous. The daily tropical rain makes maintenance of the red dirt tracks difficult. One headmaster was rightly proud of his concrete walkways.

Most of the buildings that I have seen are in need of a fresh paint job. Money is scarce at the chalk face, but the lack of care of these buildings could be a sad reflection of priorities. The classrooms are not the hives of industry that I am used to. Children sit in rows and have the lesson delivered. Most teachers have more than one job. They need to, as their pay is so poor. The schools are so crowded that they commonly run two teaching sessions a day, and sometimes need three to cater for the numbers. The country has a disproportionate number of children to adults. I was told that children and young people make up 50% of the total population. More schools are needed.

One of our missions was to find a suitable place to live. Two years is a big investment of our time and although our money is limited, it is important to find a home that we can make into just that.

We were shown several, including a wooden shack on stilts. We reached it by climbing a rickety steep wooden ladder to be shown the possibilities of a comfortable des. res. that could be achieved if we gave the first three months rent in advance. Very interesting, but it stretched our imaginations a step too far.

Kay and I were thrilled with the last house we visited. It had been the home of another volunteer who had enjoyed an excellent relationship with the landlady who lived next door. It is a large concrete built house set in a garden and bounded by high fences. We will have mangoes and bananas and papayas for the picking.

We stepped inside to be instantly taken with the traditional rosy floor tiles and the high ceilings. There is room for us to have a floor each and we will share the garden, balcony and huge roof terrace. There is even room for us to have a shared office area. Even more exciting is the prospect of one of the three bathrooms having hot water. That may sound strange in such a warm climate, but sometimes there’s such a comfort factor with warm water. And it’s hard to rinse your hair with cold.

Which takes me to our Home stay. We were taken on the back of motorbikes out of Battambang along a perilous track for forty minutes. Try that when you are braced so that you don’t touch the guy driving either with hand or thigh! Its good for tightening those muscles!

We arrived at a wooden farmhouse on stilts. The family greeted us warmly and then we were off for a trip to the rice fields. It was back on the bikes again. Oh! My aching thighs!

The track led us over a real wood slatted suspension bridge that swung high over the swift flowing river as the motorbikes trundled across. The spirit of ‘Indiana Jones’ was with us. I think it was Kay who uttered a little whimper as we realised that we really were going across, but it could have been me.

The rice fields were well worth the effort. Greens that defy description, a blessed quiet, and smiling people who stood knee deep in water to plant out the new rice plants. There were water buffalo and shining white egrets. The dusty wooden houses that crowd into the city are the same as the farmhouses, but here there is space around them for children to play safely and for the animals to wander. Most have a pond floating with lotus flowers.

Then back on the bikes to the house for lunch. We walked over the bridge. We wanted to enjoy the view. My story and I'm sticking to it.

Lunch was served on one of those bed/table affairs that figure as a sort of living room floor. It is above the earth floor and the wandering dogs, chickens, etc. We were instructed to sit cross-legged on the rice mats and given chopsticks to eat the tasty combination of rice, chicken and vegetables. I noticed that neither the women nor the children joined us, but watched from the other ‘table-top’ where they had prepared the meal.

We realised that while we were being offered seconds by the men who sat with us, while the women and children were waiting. If we had eaten everything, we would have been given smiles. I hope we had left enough for them. We entertained the family with photographs of our families and they were very taken with the Holme Valley Express that I had taken to show them something of our valley.

After lunch we were ushered to the hammocks and told to get in. Kay and looked at each other and laughed. Neither of us had sat in a hammock before and we had no idea how to climb aboard without tipping ourselves onto the ground. We were given no option. We were to rest. So we did. And we both nodded off in the most comfortable beds we had experienced for a while! A must for our new place, we decided.

Naps over, and the sun a little less fierce and it was time to go sightseeing. On the bikes again, to a local hilltop pagoda, dating from the twelfth century. I fell off on the way. No, I did not fall off. The poor girl who was my driver, slipped sideways on the badly rutted track and the bike tipped over. There was a horrid moment while I fell in slow motion, trying to stop the bike landing on my leg. All I suffered were a grazed leg and foot and bruised ribs that, fortunately, didn’t really make themselves a nuisance until the next day. The driver was fine, but so embarrassed. Our host would not let her drive me after that. I felt I should apologise to her.

We went on until we came to the foot of crumbling ancient steps, leading us to the temple above. It was very hot and the steps were a challenge, but the view from the top was worth it. There were the tumbled remains of an ancient pagoda and a well-preserved, intricately carved stone temple with yellow wrapped effigies of Buddha inside. Wherever we looked we could see long vistas over the rice fields. The river snaked through the tropical greenery, and golden roofed pagodas shone in the distance. Our guide told us that the site is where local people go for picnics. There was a chilling scattering of signs left by the mine clearance teams. Then I thought of us wandering along the edges of the rice fields! We had followed the tracks of the farmers, but that does not ensure safety. We had been lucky, and we would not push our luck again.

The steps were more difficult to climb down we thought, but we made it and were taken back to the farmhouse for our evening meal. Night clatters down in a hurry here, with the cicadas making a terrible din. Rather like a concert of whistling kettles.

Dinner was served upstairs on the verandah. All well polished dark wooden planks with bright rice mats to sit on. The television took pride of place, with a decoration of artificial flowers.

We were with the men again with just the young woman who was our interpreter, Kay and I who sat in state. The women and children peeped around the doorway and brought plates of food for us. They had eaten first, so we felt better than we might have done. Fragrant rice with dishes of spiced chicken and vegetables were a delight, and a special treat followed. We were presented with great whole coconuts, husk and all, the top shorn off, like the top of a breakfast egg. The knife that did that was going to be a fearsome beast! There was a hole cut into the top of the nut and we had party straws to drink the coconut milk.
It was absolutely delicious.

After chatting in our special three-cornered mode, via translator, for a while we were told that we were tired and should go to bed.

We were to have a shower. Hmmmmm…..

Well, we could have joined the other women who donned their sarongs and ladled paddles of water from the great ‘Ali Baba’ pots over themselves in a corner of the compound. This family were determined to be the perfect hosts. We had three buckets of water placed in the wood and corrugated toilet for us. We even had a candle and a little soap dish! It is hard stripping off and hovering over a porcelain hole in the ground while pouring water over oneself, by the light of a candle. The cracks in the wooden walls were an added distraction. I would have preferred to do as the family had done. It would have been easier, but how could we say that when they were being so careful to cater for our strange foreign ways?

We were also given what was obviously the best bed space. It was upstairs in the big room that opened out onto the verandah. There, in the centre, was a large pink mosquito net like an exotic tent. Inside a large, colourful mat filled the floor and at the back were two small, firm, colourfully decorated cushions. We fumbling about getting undressed and ready for bed in the glow of our tiny torches. There were other muslin tents in the room that were obviously occupied, and we were very conscious of the need to retire with as much grace as we could.

It was a trifle galling to hear the party that was going on below us. The men carried on talking and laughing for a long time, while we felt like children who had been packed off to bed by the grown-ups!

It is hard to sleep comfortably on a rattan mat laid on a wooden floor with a solid lump of a cushion instead of a pillow. But we did. Both of us reported that the other snored at some time in the deep, dark night. The total lack of light was a shock to our Western eyes. The rain thundering onto the corrugated iron roof of the outbuilding added to the tropical experience.

Still, we slept for part of the night in a farmhouse designed by function and resource availability. It was amazing.

We left in the morning leaving sarongs as presents, and promises to return with photographs when we come back to the Province. I left the newspaper for a daughter of the house as she was a teacher of English and could make good use of it in her classes.

I have the utmost respect for these families living on small farms that turn out their children for school in pristine white shirts and shining hair and faces, with only pots of rainwater to wash in. They cycle or walk down the dusty or muddy tracks, bag on shoulder and a great smile for the visiting ‘Barang.’

Over 80% of the people are farmers, and we were privileged to be welcomed into a typical home of a farming community.

We returned to our air-conditioned room with its en-suite bathroom, and tried to reconcile ourselves to the contrast in life styles.

Another couple of days of meetings and exploring the town passed quickly and then we were off back to Phnom Penh for more language training.

We had acquired a small insight into the lives of the people we were in Cambodia to help. We had an exciting journey ahead. We had more to learn than teach, I think.


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