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Open Features: Colourful Cambodia

... Our ride back to Phnom Penh was another adventure over the cratered roads and through bustling small towns. We saw pigs trussed up in wicker baskets on the backs of motorbikes, pink bottoms getting pinker in the hot sun. Our gentle feelings were soothed when it was explained that they have an idyllic piggy life rooting about and under the stilted houses and in the family lotus pond. On market day, they are given a whopping dose of the local ‘herbal remedy’ so they go out on a ‘high’. It certainly beats factory farming, bottoms up!...

Anne Veronica Steward paints a vivid word picture of life in Cambodia where she served as a voluntary teaching advisor.

Yes, Cambodia is in Asia, not Africa, or South America. This small, battered country has played its part on the world stage. I must confess that I had to go to the atlas to find exactly where I was going to spend the next two years as a volunteer, or 'Nayek smak chet' as they are called here.

The 'Killing Fields have left the Cambodians with very few professionals. The Khmer Rouge set about the already battle weary people to drive them out to grow rice for the Chinese, in return for guns. If you had soft hands or if you wore glasses, this was enough to brand you as an enemy of the new regime. The law was often in the hands of soldiers in their early teens, with bloody great guns in their hands. 'Lord of the Flies', big time!

Families were split. Children became absorbed into the 'Army.'

I have seen the wide, tree lined boulevards and the elegant houses that grace the city of Phnom Penh. I have also seen the abject poverty of many of its inhabitants, and seen the piles of filth that line the roads. The city is in a building frenzy. There are workers all over the place scrambling up their wobbly-looking bamboo scaffolding. The city has the bone structure of a great beauty that has been ravaged by life. I hope that it can be restored. Women and men are busy reconstructing the country.

Street sweepers line the major roads in their green, all--enveloping uniforms that appear frighteningly hot. They swathe their faces with scarves to keep out the foul fumes as they brush the streets with brooms, dodging the seemingly chaotic traffic. At least the volume of cycles, motor dopps, cyclos and wandering pedestrians keep the speed down. I still can't get used to the concept of the right of way belonging to whoever wants to dive out into the traffic.

The side roads are dirt roads where people live and work. The displaced families set up street shops where you can have a haircut, buy shirts, have a meal cooked in front of you, buy a Coca-cola bottle of fuel for your motor scooter. Health and Safety? No problem.

We had a great treat planned. We were to attend a training session in Kampot which is near to the sea and so we had our first view of the countryside.

The wide, well kept road led us out of the city via the restaurant at the rear of a petrol station. We had green tea with bowls of chicken soup with noodles. Delicious. The chopsticks were a challenge. But we were also given spoons.

The road soon disintegrated into a mind-boggling rally driving challenge. Our vehicle was a four-wheel drive Rover, complete with air-conditioning. We were performing a Lambada around the storm washed craters. I shall never complain about potholes in Yorkshire again.

Our fellow road users were pedestrians with or without a cow on a rope, bullock carts, and motorbikes, some pulling huge trailers, coaches, and other large high-slung vehicles like ours. All weaving about trying to stay upright and mainly on the right side of the road. Yellow and orange wrapped monks plod sedately through it all. Some with bright yellow umbrellas for shade.

The scenery was breathtaking. The rice fields glow lime green. Their neat squares surround the stilted wooden houses. Blue is the favourite colour for painting shutters and is perfect. Family life goes on under the houses. A large bed/table serves as a living room floor. Pigs, chickens, and children wander about freely while the great white cows are tethered until a tiny child takes them for a graze in the rice field.

Children fish in the paddy fields, with graceful curving rods. Palm trees stand making punctuation marks like great green 'one o' clocks' in the landscape that drifts away to the hills dressed in lush, tropical blue-greenery.

We weaved through busy little farming towns with market stalls spilling out towards the red dirt, heavily damaged road, gouged and channelled by the torrential daily rain.

We were weary and sore when we arrived. I had laughed at the suggestion in the pre-departure pack that a sturdy sports bra might be advisable for travelling, but it beats having to keep your arms crossed for hours.

Kampot is a small town, near the sea and built on a river. The streets are wide and there are structures that show the shadow of its past, but it seems strange to find streets of the town are lined by houses that are tiny farms, with skinny chickens, pigs and cows living en famille. The shops are the ground floor of town houses and have a local appeal. Karaoke rules here as in the rest of Cambodia. It seems a good humoured, slow moving town that has seen more elegant days.

We were taken to the nearby seaside resort of Kep where we enjoyed a great plate of crabs straight from the sea. The veranda was hung with beautiful orchids planted into split coconut shells.

The sea is turquoise and silky warm. A party of monks were splashing in the shallows. We walked the shore, glad to ease our hot feet. As we paddled back to the busy food stalls, the locals were busy catching and preparing crabs and throwing the debris into the sea. Plastic bags are everywhere. The local drink of sugar palm juice is served in small bags with a straw poking through one corner. And then discarded. But until recently rubbish was all organic, like the bamboo tubes of rice, and leaf wrapped roast banana.

I was beginning to learn to take that step back and not judge.

We were taken the next day to a local school where the teachers were having an inset day. A volunteer was demonstrating an English lesson, with role play and visual aids. The Khmer teachers entered the fun of things with great enjoyment. Their curriculum has been designed to be delivered with little interaction between the pupils and teacher. Improving methodology was our reason for being there. It seems ironic to be exporting child centred education when our own country was leaning to the more prescriptive methods.

Our lunch was served in the nearby market with the education minister who delighted in sharing with us his favourite dish of chicken stew. With bones. It is something else to learn. Europeans need to ask for chicken without bones. Otherwise you are fed with whole chicken feet and heads and things. The bird is simply chopped up and all is used. Dairy products are not much used and so crunching bones is a good source of calcium. It makes sense, but I stuck with the vegetable dish.

Our ride back to Phnom Penh was another adventure over the cratered roads and through bustling small towns. We saw pigs trussed up in wicker baskets on the backs of motorbikes, pink bottoms getting pinker in the hot sun. Our gentle feelings were soothed when it was explained that they have an idyllic piggy life rooting about and under the stilted houses and in the family lotus pond. On market day, they are given a whopping dose of the local ‘herbal remedy’ so they go out on a ‘high’. It certainly beats factory farming, bottoms up!

As we drove back into the city it was strange how quickly it had become familiar and driving up to the VSO ‘Big Sister House’ felt like a homecoming.


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