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Open Features: Bangkok And Beyond

Anne Veronica Steward, who served as a voluntary teaching advisor, shares her first vivid impressions of colourfful Cambodia.

My adventure has begun.

I have flown over Europe, the Middle East, and seen the muddy yellow waters of India’s rivers and her white-crusted islands where she crumbles into the turquoise sea. And on to Bangkok for a short stop before flying to Cambodia.

I have come to Cambodia to be a teaching advisor in a small provincial town that I had never heard of until such a short time ago. The group of like-minded people who are my companions are, like me, tired, dazed and wondering if the job is within their capabilities. We need to learn a language very different from ours, with a written script that is a series of elegant curling shapes with no spaces between the words. We have a few weeks to learn Khmer and then we take different paths to our placements.

Some have learnt to drive motorbikes but it seems that I won’t have to gain that particular skill. After the talk we had this afternoon about road safety, or lack of it, I feel no envy. Crossing the road safely seems a big enough challenge, for me just now. I have my snazzy blue and silver helmet for riding as a passenger on a bike, and that is enough.


The day of the cyclos. Those ingenious taxis that have a car seat mounted on a sort of tricycle. Rather like a customised wheelchair. They have an endearingly homemade air that belies their value to their owners; heroes who transport locals and foreigners through the perilous streets, with only their considerable leg muscles to power them.

I now know how a baby must feel when their parent turns them abruptly into the path of oncoming traffic before crossing the road. The cyclo-men follow the rules of engagement that serve the Cambodians instead of traffic regulations. We need to cross the road, or turn into another lane? No problem, let’s go for it! With luck the other guys will see us coming and give way….or not! If the lane on our side of the road looks a bit crowded, no problem, go up on the other side of the road.

We saw the sights and the pagodas are truly magnificent. We marvelled at the wide streets bordered by fine buildings that reflected the pride in the country’s ancient history and its more recent colonial past. We wondered at the crowded unpaved side streets, still mud-caked and wet after the night’s torrential rain. The main streets were clean, but the majority of the city has heaps and drifts of litter.

Did I mention the fact that it seems to rain on cue at about 5.30 pm. Every day? Well, at least you can be prepared. It’s warm rain and strangely pleasant as I seem to have developed a really leaky skin by that time of the day.

The people are everywhere. I am trying to find out how the street dwellers survive the downfall. They must hide somewhere. I suspect that life was harder still before plastic sheeting was invented.

People are trying so hard to make a living. There are ramshackle stalls lining the streets, selling all sorts of goods. Cyclos and moto-dops ply their trade everywhere. If you stop for a moment, anywhere, there are offers to take you, show you, guide you, sell you..'

Widespread mechanisation would seem to me to be inappropriate here. They need labour intensive work for as many as possible. I felt for the people who sweep the streets using brooms. They are all wrapped up against the pollution, and risk life and limb on the verges, but would motorised road cleaners help? There would be so many more people having to hustle to live.

Some have obviously fallen out of the race. Some poor souls display terrible wounds inflicted by the foulness of landmines or disease and have to beg for a living, but most seem to work terribly hard for little reward. Two or three jobs are the norm.

The Police are to be avoided if possible, particularly if you are a motorist as they are reputed to supplement their incomes by imposing fines at random. There are problems caused by the difficulty in forming a new Parliament because the winning party has too small a proportion of the votes. While politicians negotiate, many public servants wait to be paid. The police included, I believe.

We stopped at the Phnom Penh Wat where we went barefoot and bareheaded to join the faithful before hundreds of statues of Buddha and a variety of deities festooned with money and other offerings.

Beggars were everywhere. Some tried to persuade tourists to give them money to release the pathetic doped swallows that they hold in their hands or keep in cages. I cannot judge them. What might I do if I was in their position with children to provide for and no other way to make a living?

There was a tree full of hanging bats. I found that strange as it was full daylight. From a balcony we watched monkeys leaping among the trees and the buildings. It was reminiscent of the scene from ‘Jungle Book’. I found myself humming ‘I want to be like you…hoo…hoo.’ I enjoyed the delight of a pretty child of about three who included me in her excitement. We both knew what the other meant.

Our long suffering cyclo drivers welcomed us back and forgave us when we got them confused by asking to be driven around a lake that has so many eateries around it that it can’t be driven around. We were glad to leave them to have a good long break while we dined in style at the Foreign Correspondents' Club on the open veranda with the big fans whupping above our heads.

Then on to the New Market where the stalls are so tightly fitted in that we had to sidle past the rich eye feast of gorgeous silks, pots and pans and carefully ranked parts of motor bikes. We hurried past the meat stalls as the smell depressed us. It was the middle of the afternoon by then, so it was to be expected, but the huge grey rat that ran across our path was not!

There were little children, men and women of all ages, sleeping wherever. Some had slung hammocks across a corner of their plot. Some were curled up on their stock, and there was one woman stretched out on the table she used in her dressmaking business. We were told that we could take garments there to be copied. Just take your fabric, and a new creation would be yours.

As we left the market we saw the heaped piles of crunchy fried tarantulas and scorpions. Yum!

Cyclos were waiting to take us back to the VSO where we found steamed rice and platters of meat and vegetables on the long refectory type mahogany table.. There was a pattern forming here. Steamed rice is served with every meal to the Cambodians. The word for a kitchen means 'the room where rice is cooked.'

It was bizarre to watch ‘Gosforth Park’ in this setting. Mosquito screens at the window, fans busily fussing our hair and scattering papers. The gin and tonics added to the distinctly colonial feel of the evening.

We had arrived and taken breath and were still having to remind each other where we were. "We're in Cambodia," one of us would say. "Really?" would come the answer. Reality seemed to be on hold.

* Another article by Anne will appear next Wednesday.


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