Saturday, May 30, 2009

Sihanoukville I

To the beach!

Spent the first night on Victory Hill as I would be living near the beach for a month or more. Grim.
A backpackers area in the high season, but now it seems to be populated solely by overweight white men who snooze on the beach all day and sit around drinking with the local hookers all night.
Moved to the centre of town the next day. Sihanoukville isn't much of a town really - a six lane road runs through the middle, it's small but sprawling, a couple of markets selling the usual stuff. No 'sights' as such.

The beaches are lovely, and there's seven of the them ranging from 100 yards of sand looking out to the islands, to 3 kilometer stretches with dozens of bar and restaurant shacks.

Where i'm staying at Ocheteul Beach is the most popular with tourists and locals alike. The modest Khmers swim fully clothed, rain or shine, shrieking in the waves and having fun.
The tourists dash from the beach to the bars at the first hint of rain. Of which there is a lot. Most days it's raining for an hour or more at some point. A few days have seen massive storms, loads of lightening and the loudest thunder i've ever heard. It feels like the whole building is shaking. Then the power cuts out and it goes pitch black for 15-20 mins as not everywhere has a back-up generator.

The plus side of all this weather is that the skies are amazing at the end of the day, as the sun sets behind the hill and lights all the clouds from below. Sadly my digital camera isn't really up to capturing all this but i'll try with my 35mm some day soon.

I've been working at the Cambodian Children's Painting Project for 2 weeks now. It really is a lovely place; the staff and volunteers are all great, there's a relaxed atmosphere despite the work involved and the kids are (mostly) really sweet.

Typical day goes like this - start at 8am, set up the painting studio for the children, who tend to arrive from 7.45 to 8.30, help them with painting and ideas for paintings (have to constantly try and persuade them to try new things as they can be very stubborn and always want to paint the same things; palm trees, sunsets, monks with umbrellas... At 10am they have English classes and I help the teacher with the lessons too, although a lot of the time it's just a question of keeping the kids in line, making sure they don't copy other student's work, and helping with their writing and spelling. After that we set up all the little tables and chairs out the front and start serving up 50-70 bowls of food for lunch.

In the afternoon they do more painting, various crafts and games, finishing at 5pm.
About 10 of the boys have home made skateboards with they ride down the access road opposite the project.

This results in an endless stream of minor injuries, cuts and grazes. So we also spend a fair amount of time doing first aid, patching them up and sending them off to do it all over again. They never cry, they're a tough bunch.

This afternoon we're taking some of them down to beach to give out flyers for the play that they are performing tonight... pictures soon (ish).

All in all, life is good - i'm enjoying the work and have met some great people here. There's plenty of time off for the beach, and a party most nights somewhere or other. It can be an exhausting combination of work/party/relentless heat - but it's great.


Phnom Penh II

How hot was it in PP? - the first day at the lakeside I put my book down (in the sun) while I had lunch. When I picked it up the cover came off in my hand as the glue had melted. Quite hot.

One day I visited the S-21 Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, which is deeply depressing particularly as the KR Trials don't seem to be moving forward very smoothly:

"Unfortunately, existing Cambodian law is weak on the crimes the tribunal is investigating. Worse, the judiciary is one of the world's least qualified and most corrupt. Human-rights groups say it is not an instrument of justice but a political tool. Moreover, Hun Sen and other prominent government figures are themselves former Khmer Rouges and are assumed to remain sensitive about the tribunal's investigations and its targets for prosecution."

I'm not going to say much about the place as others have written about it much more eloquently that I ever could.

Prisoners' clothes left in an old store room (not part of the tour).

Old barbed wire (not part of the tour).


More photos here.

Afterward I visited the National Museum for a more positive view of Khmer history. There is so much good in this country, and such wonderful, positive people, despite the poverty and corruption. It's a lovely place, but can be very saddening at times.


Driving II

Forgot to mention; they generally drive on the right here, but for short journeys (1-2 blocks) the left is fine too.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Driving in the city

Most people I have met here seem terrified of driving in the city.
I love it.

As long as you play by the local rules it's easy. The traffic is very heavy, but moves at about 20mph. Constantly. It never stops; not at traffic lights (which i think are there simply to indulge the Khmers love of all things twinkly), not at the roundabouts, and NEVER at a junction.

You simlpy pick a tiny gap in the oncoming/cross traffic and go for it. You know there's space, the other drivers know there's space so it all flows seemlessly. Unless you hesitate. Hesitate and be damned.
It's a nice Buddhist way of driving; 'be mindful of others'.

If London adopted this freewheeling style there would be no traffic jams at all. Boris, take note.


Thursday, May 14, 2009


After a month of frenzied packing and paperwork, the 13 Hour flight from Stansted to KL was uneventful (as flights should be) happily i slept through most of it (no movies on Air Asia).
Arrived at KL in a massive storm of lightening and heavy rain.

I remembered KL as being a nice airport, cool and airy in a modern tropical design (lots of high ceilings clad in thousands of curved wooden slats), but that was KLIA. I landed at the LCCT (Low Cost Carrier Terminal) which was less glamorous, more of a vast corrugated iron shed, with limited facilities.

At 06.30 it was already hot with 70% humidity; fortunately I only had 8 hours or so to wait for my connection; not quite long enough to be worth going into the city (sans guidebook), but just long enough to come to really hate the airport; its only saving grace being that it is largely beige.

On arrival all passengers had to go through 'swine flu screening' which involved walking in front of a thermal imaging camera (is this a recognised method of seeing who has a fever?) and had our temperature taken for good measure. (all clear).

Customs and immigration were painless, watched over by half a dozen Malaysian policewomen who, dressed in dark blue uniforms with matching caps and scarves that covered them fromeye brow to chin, looked like a small amy of cute and smiling Ninjas.

Finally the flight to Cambodia was ready (check-in at the domestic gates, of course) and an hour or so later we landed in Phnom Penh.

Spent a few days (6) at the Boeung Kak Lakeside area of the city. A small strip of guesthouses and bars along the shore of a rapidly diminishing lake. The ''City Planners'' have decided to fill in this mosquito farm in order to develop it. How long this will take and what is going to be built seems to be a bit of a mystery to the locals i spoke with, but whatever happens, the tourist dollars are likely to dry up a bit when the peaceful lakeside setting and sunset views are replaced with modern Khmer buildings (not pretty - more on that later).

Having dinner with some Danish girls one evening, i suggested a trip to the 'beach'' - a wide strip of sandbanks on an island a few miles out of the city; we agreed to rent Motos the next morning for a ride in the country.

It all started well enough - i vaguely remembered the way from a previous visit in Jan 2000 and had some directions in the guidebook... found the ferry, cross the river, turn right.

Well, turn left actually, but who's counting? - went the long way round the island, arriving just in time to be ushered onto a small thatched platform on stilts over the water, seconds before the sky opened up. In the 20 seconds it took to get my bike under cover I was soaked through. And cold for the first time since arriving. The water however was warm, warm like a bath.

So we swam about in the muddy water while waiting for lunch to arrive; a pair of fried catfish, rice and chilli/papaya salad. Despite the guts falling out as i tried to fillet it, it was delicious, and eaten while sitting in the river as it was still raining hard.

Eventually it stopped raining and we decided to head back, taking the correct route it should have been a sunny 10 minute ride back to the ferry, through the palm trees and stilt houses that ring the island.

But an hour of monsoon style rain had put paid to the solid tracks of the morning; now all was mud. Deep mud, in places a foot deep, churned up by a couple of passing trucks. My previous experience of off-roading, on a motorbike, with a passenger, being exactly nil, what followed is best described as a farce. Trying to keep the bike moving in a straight line was near impossible, having a wobbly Dane on the back didn't help, but she gamely clung on, and walked when it became apparent that i was pretty useless.

An hour later we made it to solid ground and the ferry, largely unscathed (apart from running over my own foot) but knackered and very muddy.
(ah yes, my new shoes...)

Made it back to the city, got the bikes and shoes jet-washed ($1); shower / happy hour.

The rest of the time in Phnom Penh I rode around on a bicycle, visited some temples and ate interesting things in the market.

Hopefully i'll find a faster internet connection soon and tidy this page up a bit and sort out the pictures, but here, now, it's all taking forever. (bloody useless PC too).