28 January 2011

BLOOMing brilliant!

Carrying my books and other stuff to work this week has been a real pleasure. Why? Because the new handbag I bought in Siem Reap is just brilliant!

Now, those of you who know me well know that I'm not a slave to fashion. I don't buy labels, I have no clue about the latest fashion trends, I don't know what's 'in' or 'out'. So, it may seem very strange to find that I'm writing about my handbag.

Ah, but this is more than just a handbag! Not only is it unique, colourful, practical, hardwearing, roomy, functional and, for me, a travel memory, but it is also a protest statement. My bag is the product of BLOOM Cambodia, 'a social enterprise established in Sept 2006 with the intention of providing fair-paying jobs to disadvantaged Cambodians. BLOOM is not a factory. We are a small workshop of ten people who spend our working hours dreaming up and making original, quality bags, all hand-made from recycled rice and fish feed bags.'

I strongly support BLOOM's philosophy. It's along the lines of that old adage: 'Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.'

BLOOM believes 'there are too many NGOs in Cambodia and that the country is too reliant on NGO money' and 'regular and constant handouts create a dependency mentality that is ultimately detrimental to Cambodian people.'

'There are many people helping Cambodian children, but BLOOM believes that it is just as important to help Cambodian adults, specifically, by providing jobs. As long as parents do not have a stable, secure life, their kids will never be stable and safe. Jobs provide regular income, which in turn provides stability, security, and a sense of the future.'

So, BLOOM set up their workshop, giving disadvantaged women fair wages and a happy working environment, teaching them skills so that they can earn their own living. I like this! And I love their manifesto!


·                     We believe in the right of all people to a decent life, free of poverty and with access to education
·                     We believe you will be enriched helping the poor
·                     We believe workers should always be paid a fair wage
·                     We believe if you knew the truth, you would not be an accessory to the exploitation of workers
·                     We believe exploitation is evil
·                     We believe in the power of good over evil
·                     We believe in the power of the individual to bring about change
·                     We believe your bag is a reflection of you - are you really a sheep?
·                     We believe quality is worth paying for
·                     We believe women hold up half the sky
·                     We believe in love at first sight - at least where our bags are concerned!
·                     We believe in life, liberty and the pursuit of handbags!

26 January 2011

Sensuous Cambodia

   *      my first impression on arrival: the aromatic smell of wood smoke
   *      the products of Senteurs d’Angkor, where they make candles and soaps smelling of mango, orange, ginger, lemon grass, etc
   *      sweet frangipani flowers given to us by our masseuses at Phnom Balan
   *      food cooking – so many flavours, so much delicious food

*      wedding music blaring out over loudspeakers
*      the squeaky trumpet used by rubbish collectors to advertise their presence
*      the thumping drums from a place near the Globalteer Guesthouse, where local Chinese people practise their dragon dance
*      the sound of the family next door pumping water from their well
*      dogs fighting at all hours of the day and night
*      the fan in my room constantly rotating
*      monk chanting amplified from the local pagoda
*      the haunting tunes of the Khmer music played by the victims of landmines

*      the garish pinks, yellows and reds of the fabric used to decorate wedding marquees
*      monks’ laundry: bright orange oblongs of fabric strung over any handy object to dry
*      the magnificent sculptural work on the temples
*      a child’s smile
*      vehicles of all types piled high with goods and even higher with people
*      the painted blue trim on almost every house in the countryside
*      the delicate pink of waterlily blooms

*      the spices of the local curry: lemongrass, galangal, turmeric, ginger
*      amok served in a coconut -- delicious
*      Blue Vesuvio cocktails: vodka, blue curacao and lime, heaped with so much crushed ice it hurts your teeth
*      The Soup Dragon’s stir-fried noodles: no. 1 on our noodle-ometer
*      the refreshing tang of freshly squeezed lime juice
*      trying new foods: the spicy, saltiness of sun-dried shellfish laced with chilli; juicy mangosteen and dragonfruit

*      soft skin from washing with softer water
*      rough feet from constantly going barefoot
*      dusty, sweaty, grimy skin after a long day at school or at the temples
*      the wind in your face during a tuk tuk ride – and subsequent tuk tuk windblown hair
*      the clinging hug of a small child

22 January 2011

a +/- b +/- c = 2011

Looking for my future?
A friend asked me when and where my next adventure would be. Actually, J, I have no idea yet but I do have plans …

First, I need to set the scene. My BIG plan is to travel and live abroad for at least the next 10 years or so, until I feel ready to come home and settle down to old age! Of course, that may never happen and I may eventually decide to live elsewhere but, at the moment, the few ties I do have are here.

Some of you know the story of how I’m ‘doing time’ at the moment. For those that don’t, I’ll quickly explain. New Zealand has a rule that to qualify for your government old-age pension at age 65, you need to live here for five years after you turn 50. I decided it was easiest to do that time before I set off into the wild blue yonder, rather than having it hanging over my head. I’ll be 55 in May so in just a few more months I’ll be FREE!

Then what? Well, plan (a) has been under development since early last year. I’ve never been to South America and Machu Picchu in Peru is on my bucket list. Also, Globalteer, the charity organisation I volunteered with in Cambodia, has a place there, in Cusco, and another in Colombia. So, my initial travel plan was to go to Medellin in Colombia and do a stint volunteering with Globalteer, then do the same in Peru, then find a job teaching English somewhere in Chile for six months or more.

More of this would be perfect
Then there’s plan (b). My months volunteering in Cambodia this year and last touched me deeply. I was genuinely happy there, I gained true satisfaction from helping others and it made my own life seem somehow insignificant. But I also realised that four weeks is not long enough to make a real difference in the lives of the people you’re trying to help. So, a few months ago I registered my interest with New Zealand’s Volunteer Service Abroad. They place volunteers for a two-year period in projects in countries in Africa, Asia and the Pacific. Your airfares are paid, as is your health insurance and a small living allowance, and accommodation is provided. The Pacific seems a little close to home so I’d prefer to go to Asia or Africa. The bonus is that working with VSO qualifies as being in NZ for government-pension purposes so I could leave before I turn 55! However, no placements have yet come up and I’ve recently found out that VSO are limiting their focus more to the Pacific … still, this remains a possibility.

Plan (c) only came up in December. The director at the school where I currently teach returned from a marketing trip and announced that she had been approached by a man in Ho Chi Minh City Vietnam to set up a school there. The school buildings and teachers’ accommodation have already been located but the business still needs money – and paying students, of course – to get it going. I signalled my interest to my director so teaching in Vietnam is also a possibility.

It’s mid January now so I have four more months till my birthday to get myself organised. I downsized dramatically when I left my ex and bought my apartment but I do need to pare down my belongings even more so I don’t have to pay too much storage while I’m away. And, thinking that plan (a) is the most likely future possibility, I’ve booked myself in for conversational Spanish lessons starting in February.

So, I really don’t know where and when my next big adventure will be. It may be a and/or b and/or c, or life may throw some other interesting possibility into the mix. Whatever happens, 2011 has the potential to be amazing! 

20 January 2011

Killing time at Changi

It was only after I wrote those words down in my notebook that their sad irony occurred to me, as it was in the same area as this international airport that the atrocities of the infamous Japanese prison camp took place during the Second World War. The buildings and the events from that sad time couldn’t be more removed from the bright, glossy structures that now function so efficiently to move thousands of people each day from A to B.

Looking down at Tonle Sap
as I left Siem Reap
So, how did I kill my time at Changi? Well, my flight from Siem Reap arrived right on time at 15:40 local time and my flight on to Auckland didn’t depart until 21:15, so I had 5½ hours to burn.

I sampled some of the local produce – nothing fancy, considering the large selection of cuisines available – just a prawn omelette. It was light and delicious, if a little greasy. I was eating that when an Asian man, holding a baby and leading a toddler by the finger, approached and said something to me in a foreign language. The only word I understood was Kampuchea, but that was enough for me to realise that he had read the Khmer text (meaning ‘teacher’) on the back of the Globalteer t-shirt I was wearing. I apologised that I couldn’t speak Khmer and he asked in English if I had been to Cambodia. It turned out that he had moved from Cambodia to New Zealand 10 years earlier and now lives in Henderson, a suburb of Auckland – the words ‘small world’ come to mind! He said he wouldn’t return to Cambodia because of its government and we agreed that corruption was probably the biggest problem facing his native land.

A couple of minutes after he had wandered off, my neighbour from the incoming flight walked by, so we exchanged pleasantries. A Melbourne woman, she and her husband were going home after having enjoyed a week cruising the Mekong River, followed by a few days in Siem Reap. They were from the opposite end of the tourist scale to me, having stayed at The Raffles in Siem Reap, but it was interesting hearing about the river cruise – definitely something to add to my bucket list – I’ll never get it all done before I die!

Next, I walked. Changi is so big that you can get a free map to ensure you don’t get lost. From one end of terminal 3 to the other must be at least a kilometre, so by the time I had strolled there and back I felt I’d fulfilled my daily exercise quota. What else could I do? Well, I could have exercised in the gym, swum in the rooftop swimming pool, watched a free movie and, while eating, I had already enjoyed the pleasure of viewing a programme about sharks on ‘The World’s Largest 103-inch 1080HD Plasma Display’. There are a zillion shops – I am not exaggerating – to tempt the credit card, but I bravely resisted. The various lounge areas have positively luxurious seats to sprawl in but I resisted those too – didn’t want to fall asleep and miss my flight.

The passageways at Changi are decorated with exotic orchids, artificially blossoming cherry trees and lush, well-tended indoor gardens. There is even a waterfall feature. I sat behind it for a short while and, as it proved a popular object for photographing, I’m sure I must now appear in the background of many photographs around the world.

I tried playing ‘guess the nationality’ as I people-watched. There was a team of disabled Chinese sports players on their way to a tournament or games somewhere and, for a while, a group of 4 Japanese held my eye – they were obviously all deaf and conversing in sign language. The travellers in scruffy shorts, t-shirts and jandals were easy to pick – they had to be either Aussies or Kiwis. You can spot our relaxed, casual style a mile away. And talking about style, what is the current fashion-conscious traveller wearing? The business and first-class passengers were elegantly attired but, for the cattle class, jeans proved as popular as ever. And cargo pants were frequently to be seen – OMG, don’t tell me I’m fashionable?!!

At last, it was time to head to the departure lounge. On the way I noticed an Airbus A380 waiting for its Melbourne-bound passengers to board. I’d never seen one of these huge double-deckers before – I can’t imagine the technology required for them to get off the ground. It looks impossible for something so huge to fly like a bird.

The flight home was, fortunately, uneventful. I watched a movie, ate the mediocre supper they eventually served at about midnight, dozed a little, and talked to the elderly Finnish lady beside me, one of a group of retirees heading for a 2-week tour of New Zealand. In what seemed too short a time to move from the third world to the first, I was back on home soil – well, tarmac and concrete actually – finding this once familiar world very strange indeed and fervently wishing I was back in the magic kingdom.

19 January 2011

A week of farewells

Sunday 9 January was the first day of the 2011 Globalteer Siem Reap Junior Soccer League season so M and I headed off at 9am to watch the Anjali Under 15s play their two matches. Although their first game was supposed to start at 9.30, it had, in fact, begun at 9 – ah, Cambodian time! – so we missed the first half. We cheered the boys on throughout the second half and during their later match against another team but, unfortunately, they lost both games 1 – 0. They are all very competitive so were looking quite disappointed as they climbed up onto the back of the truck that was their transport home.

Marianne and I headed into town to catch up with Rotha, the young woman who had been our waitress at the Globalteer restaurant last year but is now working at the Funky Monkey. It was lovely to see her again – and enjoy a long cold drink after the heat of the football field. After lunch, M headed for a relaxing couple of hours by the swimming pool while I retired to my room to rest. 

That night we had a farewell dinner with M’s Khmer family. What a great pleasure and privilege it had been to spend time with them and share their knowledge of Cambodian life. I have been invited back to attend Narong’s brother Soria’s wedding – he’s only just met his girlfriend so the wedding may be a while off yet, but I am delighted with the invitation. 

On Monday morning M and I said a tearful farewell. We have become firm friends and I have very much enjoyed our time together. I’m not sure when we’ll meet again as I have no plans to go back to Cambodia in the near future, nor can I afford a holiday in the south of France, where she lives. But if the wish I made when she tied a friendship bracelet on my wrist comes true, we shall meet in some exotic place before too long.

My last week at Anjali went by far too quickly. In English lessons we finally started the text book and I taught some lessons alone as Billy the Khmer teacher was sick a couple of days. The kids worked hard and made good progress. We revised telling the time as well as vocab and verbs to describe their daily routines, so by the end of the week they were each able to give a talk about what they do every day.

In General Studies we covered healthy eating and the food pyramid, how not to eat too many fats and dairy products – actually, they eat no dairy here at all. Perhaps rural villagers milk their own cows, but the climate and lack of refrigeration means you can’t buy milk in shops and so there are also no dairy products, except those imported for tourists to eat. Still, the abundance of fresh fruit and vegetables means the children are mostly healthy, if small by Western standards. Thursday’s task was to pretend they were restaurant owners and design a healthy menu for their customers to enjoy.

Workshops were fun. A German woman, Brigitta, had arrived to teach theatre workshops twice a week to each level of students, so we learnt how to warm up our bodies, mime some simple actions, sing an animated song, and played various games like Chinese whispers. Courtenay had the great idea to carve cakes of soap into animals and faces (and use the shavings to make more soap, so nothing was wasted), and the other day the children coloured in detailed pictures of birds and faces, which they always seem to enjoy.
Thursday was my last day and quite sad. I thought I’d be fine but when I read the letters the children had written for me, and saw the little presents – a handmade bracelet, a lovely drawing –  I became quite emotional. And some of the girls were clinging to me like little limpets. It was very hard to walk away, especially as I have no immediate plans to return to Anjali. At least some of the older children and Khmer staff are friends on Facebook, so I can keep in touch in a small way.

I enjoyed a lovely dinner that night with a small group of volunteers, then we tried our luck at the Funky Monkey pub quiz. We only came 8th out of about 12 teams but, more importantly, the quiz raised another $159 for Grace House.

18 January 2011


As a keen amateur photographer, I am always drawn to photographing faces. They show us the full gamut of human emotions as well as reflecting a person’s life experiences and heritage.

Here I shall let the faces of Cambodia speak for themselves …


Templed out!

Another two days of templing – a verb invented specifically for Cambodia.

On 7 January, Victory over Genocide Day, our group of four barang and four Khmer set out early for the three-hour drive south. Marianne and I joined Marilyn and Marg from Grace House, together with Tola (who also volunteers at Grace House) and one of their teachers, Loung, plus a driver and our tour guide Noun, to explore yet another temple complex. This was Sambor Prei Kuk, a pre-Angkorian temple complex dating from the beginning of the 7th century, with some of the oldest structures in Cambodia amongst its 100 temples.

We were a merry band of travellers. Loung had brought along his English dictionary and kept asking questions: ‘What’s the difference between expensive and expansive?’, ‘What’s the difference between coast and beach?’, and ‘Can you embalm a fish?’. He was a good student! When I tested him on the journey home, he remembered everything we’d discussed. In return, he told us stories from Khmer culture … or were they? I do wonder whether he was inventing the stories just to amuse us. For example, do you know why the cashew seed grows outside the fruit, rather than within it as is more usual? Well, it seems the fruit went out to a party one night and got very drunk. When it finally made its way home, all the doors and windows were shut, so it had to sleep outside … and it’s been sleeping outside ever since.

After 30 minutes driving, we stopped for breakfast at a roadside restaurant. I was tempted to photograph the toilet facilities. There were 3 toilets, each with a sign in English above the doors: Toilet (male), Toilet (female), and Welcome. This didn’t confuse only me – a local man, who obviously couldn’t read English went into the female cubicle. I crossed my legs rather than tempt fate.

Our journey continued south on the main road to Phnom Penh. This is a busy highway and traffic is always chaotic. Officially there are road rules in Cambodia, but they seem to be more suggestions than rules. Vehicles drive on the right, but it’s not unusual to see traffic driving in four directions at once on the same piece of highway. The centre line seems also to be just a suggestion – perhaps it’s there to help the drivers steer straight. At one stage I was convinced there must be a mattress sale in the next village as we first passed a truck stacked high with mattresses and then two motorbikes, with three mattresses each strapped behind the driver. These were double-size mattresses, not single. I’m not sure how the moto drivers kept their balance.
At Kompong Thom, we turned off the main highway and continued for perhaps 20 minutes on a relatively good dirt road. But then we turned off again and the last 14km were on the best example of a dancing road I’d experienced in Cambodia. By the time we arrived at the temples, our van had developed an alarming knocking sound and we had decided a new road sign was required for this type of road – something like ‘Sports Bra Required’!

The temples of Sambor Prei Kuk are surrounded by jungle and have delicate carvings, much damaged by weathering. They are brick-built structures, rather than stone, and have impressive towers, many of which are threatening to fall apart at the seams. Various archaeological groups have added wooden support structures to stop their destruction. The name of the largest structure, Prasat Tao, means ‘Lion Temple’, hence the two large lions guarding its entrance.

The temples were almost deserted, though as soon as we arrived we attracted the usual group of Khmer sales-children, who accompanied us for the two hours we spent exploring. Their patience was amazing; I guess they knew that their perseverance almost always defeats barang tourists. As we wandered, tiny voices would pipe up: ‘Octagonal temple. Eight-sided’, and ‘Careful the stones’, and ‘Bomb crater’ – these temples had been bombed by the Americans. At the end of our tour, we lined the girls up and bought one scarf from each of them to share the day’s sales evenly between them. None of us needed yet another scarf; it was more like a donation towards their education. Noun also gave an elderly local man a small payment for sharing his knowledge with us. It was yet another great day (and we had just enough energy to go to Rosy’s pub quiz that night – the proceeds of the quiz went to Grace House, so we couldn’t possibly not go.)

Slaves to culture, or suckers for punishment, Marianne and I spent the following day templing as well. To be honest, it was as much for the tuk tuking, which we both adore, but each temple is so different that we couldn’t resist exploring another six – yes, six! With Vibol as our driver, we set off at 8.30.

First were three temples in the Angkor Wat area, East Mebon, Ta Som and Banteay Samre. East Mebon is like a temple mountain, though its moat is now dry. It has impressive elephant statues at each corner and was ‘silent except for the distant chatter of Koreans’ (Marianne’s words). I circled the complex while Marianne climbed up, and yet again I was sought out by a young female salesgirl. She had an amusing sales technique; when I said I didn’t want one of whatever she was selling, she replied ‘Well, buy two then’. I managed not to!

Next came Ta Som, which has beautiful Bayon-style faces and a huge, strangling tree above its gates. Intriguingly, a Korean girl asked to take our photo posed amongst the ruins – we still don’t know why. We had an early lunch (of spring rolls again) before heading down a quiet country road to Banteay Samre, an isolated and so sparsely touristed temple. It was very beautiful but very hot, so the cooling interiors of the shrines and galleries were very welcoming.

From there, we set off across country to the temples of the Roulos group. Lolei is very ruined, with five towers that are now surrounded by rural village buildings and a pagoda. Preah Ko is quite a small complex, with six towers and three impressive kneeling bull sculptures sitting patiently in a row out front. They give the temple its modern name of ‘The Sacred Bull’. Its brick towers have been partially rebuilt so you could easily see the contrast between their construction materials of small pink bricks and large grey slabs of stone. And last, but certainly not least, was Bakong, a five-tier pyramid-type structure, surrounded by a walled enclosure, which is in turn surrounded by a water-filled moat. The countryside round about is very lush and the temple complex includes a range of interesting shrines, gopuras and galleries.

It was an impressive end to my Cambodian temple explorations but I confess to being exhausted by the end of the day and, though I hate to admit it, after exploring 12 temples in just 17 days, I was templed out!