Provincial travel – Cambodian style

Having paid a handsome price for an escorted transfer across the border from Vietnam we felt entitled to expect at least a battered minibus to ourselves, but it soon became clear that this was a public minibus, Cambodian style – which meant a couple more rows of seats than might be considered feasible, cardboard boxes stuffed under every seat making the already cramped legroom non-existent, and a large platform hanging off the back to which crazy amounts of luggage were being strapped. We managed, fortunately, to grab the (relatively) more spacious seats; the Russian couple were not so lucky. The door was slammed shut and we were off.

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Our minibus – just at the half-full stage.

Every 100 yards or so the minibus pulled over to let more passengers on: five, ten, fifteen, twenty. A simple rule was at work – every additional passenger was another fare for the driver and his bus conductor wife, so why would they ever turn one down? Already this 14-seater bus was pretty jam-packed, but no, there was obviously room for more. The door was slid open and the four newcomers peered in, looking somewhat non-plussed. Clearly they were not convinced that there was any more space at all, but at this point the driver swung effortlessly into salesman mode, cajoling people to sit on each other’s laps, to squeeze a little further along here, to perch on a shelf there et voila – what was all the fuss about?? Plenty of room. We rattled off again down the dusty red earth road. A little girl in front of us with beautiful brown eyes snuggled into her dad’s side and promptly fell asleep – definitely the best strategy for a journey like this. When we finally reached the main road and turned right instead of left it was clear that something was not right. "We are going to Kep, yes?" I said in my finest Cambodian. "No – Phnom Penh!" came the answer. Oh dear – we were headed in completely the wrong direction. An animated discussion broke out – all of our fellow passengers it seemed had an opinion on what should be done. The driver looked on forlornly, evidently working out in his head the lost revenue of four passengers about to get off. Eventually they agreed a plan between them that involved dropping us off in the nearest town and persuading the driver of a very well-worn taxi to take us back to Kep for the same money our cowboy agent had paid the minibus driver. Our brief experience of provincial travel, Cambodian style, was an experience that we will long remember. 

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Kenyan Safari

The baboon, as quick as lightning, jumped through the window of the minibus, grabbed the bag of sandwiches and raced out again before the passengers even had time to realize they had been mugged. A well-aimed stone from the slingshot of the park warden saw the offending animal scarper for cover.

We were at Lake Nakuru, one of Kenya’s game reserves, just two hours drive from Nairobi. I was in the capital for a week of business meetings, and the chance to sample my first safari experience was too good to pass up! Lake Nakuru itself is a shallow, strongly alkaline soda lake that attracts large numbers of flamingos – over a million at times, although not as many at this time of year.

Lake Nakuru

Lesser Flamingo at Lake Nakuru

Despite the lower numbers it was a spectacular sight with flamingos, pelicans and comorants coming and going – such graceful birds in flight!

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John, our knowledgeable guide/driver, piloted us along the gravel tracks with gusto, but also proved to have a sharp eye for spotting wildlife, screeching to a halt whenever there was something interesting to see. Our minibus had a telescopic roof that hinged up to let us stand up and see out around us unhindered, whilst not making us too exposed to marauding lions.

Driving through the Nakuru Park

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It felt a wonderful privilege to see so many of the iconic African animals roaming freely in the wild. On this trip my big zoom lens, purchased after much lobbying of the wife, really came into its own (thank you Cathy!).

Zebra at Lake Nakuru

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Male umpala

Buffalo at Lake Nakuru

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As we passed other vehicles in the park our guide would quizz their drivers to find out if they had seen any rare animals nearby. After one such exchange John announced: "They are reporting a leopard in a tree not far from here", and set off in pursuit. We arrived at the spot but unfortunately the leopard had moved on – they are notoriously elusive. Soon after, we came across a band of workmen filling in some potholes in the road. A woman dressed in military camouflage gear stood idly by holding a rifle. She nodded in the direction of a tree about a hundred yards away. We looked intently and spotted a lion standing on one of the branches looking on.

Lion on the watch at Lake Nakuru

It was exciting to see the King of Beasts in the wild and not behind a chainlink fence, but our good fortune was to grow still further as we came across a whole pride of lions sleeping under a tree just a few yards from the road. One or two of them looked up briefly as we approached and promptly went back to sleep!

Pride of lions sleeping under a tree

Lion sleeping catching an early afternoon nap

As we went further into the reserve the terrain opened out into savannah grasslands with scattered trees – very beautiful and characteristic of Africa. In the distance the steep sides of the rift valley provided a dramatic backdrop. Earlier on we had seen a glimpse of a giraffe in the distance and hoped for a closer sighting. Then as we were returning we found a small group of them picking the leaves off some impressively spiny thorn trees.

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Giraffes at Lake Nakuru

Giraffe picking out the leaves from the thorny tree

Our final sighting of an exhilarating day was a group of white rhinos grazing nearby.

White Rhinos at Lake Nakuru

Young White Rhino at Lake Nakuru

As our well-worn minibus rattled its way back to Nairobi I was thankful for the opportunity to have seen these wonderful creatures in their natural habitat.

Work experience – Cambodian style – Days 4 and 5

Jonathan continues:

On Thursday I got to do some of the work I had initially wanted to do: Admin. I was also going to take the afternoon off because I had pre-arranged a meeting with one of my friends who was leaving and also because I had to type up some work for school (this being the main part of it). So, admin, break, admin. Not to much of a demanding day then?  Well, there was enough admin for the first hour before break. this bascially consisited of me double-checking the adding up of the WV bills. However after break the admin person came to me and said that he had nothing else for me to do. Ok dokes, so what now? Desperate I bascially decided to go and help the cleaner lady (she is also the one who spoke good english and was leading the beensprout activity). Together, the windows didn’t stand a chance. I guess window cleaner can be added to my C.V as that is what I did for and hour and a half. With my biceps aching considerably and my back groaning at me I knew that I must have done a good job. Also my added height helped reach the places that the Cambodians couldn’t. With the top floor looking tiptop I headed off home to start the write up of my work experience.

Friday. The last in a jam-packed week. Once again there was devotions in the morning and then thirty odd street kids turned up at the Centre. These guys however weren’t all cute and cuddly, these were big teenage street kids in tatty clothes with sprawled hair. Today there was going to be a presentation for these guys on "boy sexual abuse". Cambodia is exploited by foreigners and corrupt businessmen and has been for many years. One of the biggest issues is dealing with "sex tourists" who come either to use Khmer prostistutes or to buy/bribe children into sleeping with them. Often it is assumed that this only affects girls, but in reality boys are also vulnerable to sexual abuse and this is overlooked to the extent that no one really hears about it. There are tonnes of NGOs working to help stop this from happening. Six out of the thirty big street kids had had sex with tourists. They all had counseling with WV staff. The rest of them watched a video underlining the situation in which the danger may occur and the importance of alerting NGOs or police to the location of criminal activities. The talk went on for a while with the kids giving back answers to the presenter. After the talk and the movie they all had their fingerprint stamped and recorded along with their age and name. Once that was all finished they were all given 10000 Riel to pay for the transport home: along the riverfront. They were given a bundle of leaflets each to share with their friends and to help spread awareness of the danger of living on the streets.

The afternoon was spent being wanted in about four or five different games at the same time. The big boys wanted to play volleyball and other sports. One other boy wanted to play basketball, the younger group wanted to play piggy in the middle and the little ones insisted on clinging to my legs and having piggyback rides. Over the course of the two and a half hours I managed to do all of the games, however I spent mopst time with the lil ‘uns because they would attach themselves to me and claim me as their own. The art of balance in Cambodians is developed from a young age. Often I see two year olds clutching the handlebars of a moto whilst standing on their parents knees. These little girls and boys would mangage to turn me, generally a one seater (I can only normally hold one person) into a five or six seater, just like they do with motorbikes. One would stand on my heels, two would stand on my feet (one on each foot) one more would piggyback and two more would be carried (one in each arm). Trying to move was difficult to say the least as six light kids all adds up to make one big block of kids, I didn’t know my own strength until then…mind you, it isn’t exactly anything to boast about! Exhausted it was time for me to leave.

It had been a humbling experience where I have discovered more about where God is leading me, how fortunate I am and how desperate this country’s needs are. I’m rather confident that I’ll be back some day…we’ll just need to wait and see.

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Work experience – Cambodian style – Days 2 and 3

Jonathan continues:
Mr Pharen had given me a timetable which he created just after I arrived. Tuesday had a grueling two and a half hour english slot to cover. Fortunately they were split by morning break with the 8:00-9:00am slot meant to be with the little kids and the 9:30-11:00am with the older kids. On Monday evening, me and Mum had a discussion about how to actually do an English lesson without it being boring. So, armed with fruit, colouring pencils, toy frogs and worksheets I set off on tuesday morning, better prepared but still rather nervous. But for all of my careful planning the two lessons got switched around so I had the big kids first, no big deal… Actually it turned out to be a blessing in disguise as my plan for the lesson went rather faster than I had anticipated.

I started with getting the kids to shout out the alphabet and numbers. Then I would say "A is for Apple" write it on the board and get them to copy it in English. After that I’d take out some apples and cut them up and give them a piece each. They then had a worksheet/dot to dot to do and colour. After they had finished that I’d do the same for B, "B is for banana" and then I’d give them all a banana. "C is for Carrot"  and give them all a piece of carrot. This all went down well and before I knew it most of the time was up. Now you must understand that most of these kids have probably never tasted apple before because it is really expensive so for them this was a new experience and that made them happy. One thing that I have really noticed since being in Cambodia is that people want to learn English and they want to go to school becuase they haven’t had the opportunity to do this for several years, quite a stark difference to England!

Now after becoming an English teacher I became a chef and a farmer as later that afternoon I took part in "Khmer cake cooking" and "Beansprout activity." The beansprout activity was simple. I got given lots of beansprout beans. I would then sort through them to sift out all of the bad ones from the good. Once deemed satisfactory they were left outside in a metal bucket filled with water for a day. A day later the water was drained and the baby beansprouts were put into clay pots with a straw plug. Four times a day for four days the pots were filled with water and then tipped upside down to drain them. This kept the growing conditions perfect for the beansprouts. Then at the end of the week we picked through them to get all of the green bean casings off them. They were then ready to sell at 3000 Riel per kilo, or about 50p!

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The Khmer cake cooking left everyone baffled over what it could possibly mean, however, being Asia, a charcoal burner and oil were bound to be key. Lo and behold there was a bowl shaped metal dish with dips in it, with the dips about the size of a cupcakes. These dips then had oil drizzled over them and the bowl was placed on a charcoal burner. Then a large vat of milky liquid (made earlier of course) was brought out and was ladled into the dips with a large bubbling and crackling sound. The mixture, I reckon, had rice flour, spring onion and milk/water in it. Or at least that is my expert opinion! Anyhow, once they were ladled in and cooked for a for minutes they would be hard enough on the outside to be flipped onto their neighbour. The pair would then cook until crispy with the two halfs melding together. I took part in using the celery stick/brush/oil dippery thing to dab oil onto the empty dips and to scrape off any spilt cake mixture and pouring the mixture into the dips. Both skills that the kids will find useful later in life no doubt! It would have been fine had it been for the fact, unlike gas, charcoal heat goes everywhere. Sweat was a common enemy during the week, with all of the sport and cooking and lack of aircon!

Tasting what you have made is always a highlight. As I write I have a large half kilo of beansprouts waiting for me in the fridge, calling ever so quietly for a companion. Also the Khmer cake was best tasted hot, so I got the chance to eat a few, with the traditional complimentary sauce. The sauce, it must be said, was not the most appealing sauce I have ever come across. It smelt of parmesan…maybe that was the reason. But it tasted of lime and as long as I didn’t think of the smell the Khmer cake was actually rather tasty. Gooey in the middle and crispy on the outside, mmm, yum!

After a sweltering sesson in the kitchen a little bit of TV was in order! All of the kids gathered round the anticated TV in the library to watch Khmer take offs of famous movies, one of which was King Kong. By this time I’d obviously been accepted into the kids’ lives and many of the younger kids came and sat on me or gave me hugs…much like my younger cousins, maybe it’s the hair. So, day two down, three more to go.

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Wednesday was one of the biggest challenges for me, as I had an hour teaching the older kids. Why should that be difficult you say. The ominous gaps in the schedule either side of the lesson were the problem. I could either be teaching for one hour or for three. Still, how hard could it be?

I arrived at 7:30am for devotions which meant a grueling 6:15am wake up. But I was glad that I made the effort. The leadership team of people at the Centre gathered around the table, each picking up a Khmer songbook. Someone had a drum and before I knew it they were off singing in the traditional Khmer tonal wail. If you have never heard Khmer singing then I suggest you find some and play it whilst you read for full effect. I mean, I like it, but I wouldn’t ever buy it! It resembles a sort of slurred version of kumbayah. A unique experience to say the least. Then after about three songs the leader of the devotions would choose a bible passage. Everyone then takes it in turn to read a verse or two until it comes full circle. Then everyone gives their interpretation of the passage. Clearly I couldn’t read the Khmer script used in the Khmer bibles so I had brought my own and read the verses in English, fortunately more Cambodians speak English than Brits speak Khmer, so most of the staff understood what I was saying. The bibles they used were very old with most not having covers, whereas mine stood out a bit with its silver leaf and leather covers. This made me wonder if you could buy Khmer bibles these days as this has been the only time that I’ve ever seen them…this could be a niche market I spy!

During devotions I learnt that the night before there had been an electrical fire in the children’s kitchen. Fortunately the guard (the only person awake) spotted it quickly and put it out. The consequences of the fire getting out of control would have been huge and all of the staff were utterly convinced that God had had a part to play in helping to stop the fire. As a result I was then asked the following day how to spell fire extinguisher. The following afternoon a man arrived with quite a few fire extinguishers, people do learn, WV wasn’t going to take any chances!

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After we had devotions I helped water the beansprouts and then helped to cut out Khmer sentances which were then glued onto a lar
ge painted poster which highlighted what the kids should spend their free time doing. This involved cooking, cleaning, being with friends and other important things to do if you feel bored. The poster was later displayed for all of the children to see along with a myriad of other posters underlining health and other important issues that these kids have never been taught on the streets.

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Then it was time for my last English lesson of the week. Again I went through the alphabet and numbers and tried to buy time. But the focus of today was shapes. So I drew different shapes on the board. First I drew a triangle. I would then choose someone to come up and write the Khmer word for triangle inside it in the Khmer script. I would then write it out underneath and get them to write it out in English. I did this for circles, squares and stars. They then had worksheets to colour and fill in, along with the Khmer to English translation. This took about half and hour and I was fairly confident that the remaining half an hour would easily be filled with my secret weapon: Playdoh!

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Mum and I had made the playdoh the night before and upon near completion discovered that we didn’t have any food colouring in the house. Suddenly our brilliant plan was looking like a bit of a white elephant (please excuse the pun!). We needed a solution and soon we had sabotaged Dad’s christmas present: a pot of tumeric. Soon we had a lovely orange lump of playdoh, job well done I’d say.

Now for obvious reasons most of the kids had never imagined yet alone seen touched or tasted anything like playdoh. So when I showed it to them they were, it must be said, a little bemused. Whilst I was dividing the playdoh up it became apparent that they had come up with their own opinions on what it was…I daren’t guess. Still, I gave them a piece each and soon they were absorbed into the unfathomable depths of curiousity that is playdoh. I got them to mkae the different shapes and I got them to make the different fruit and veg that they learnt the day before but soon I was running low on ideas as their level of expertise went from ok, to phenomenal. Still, the teaching blood inside was sparked as a brainwave that only a teacher could think of hit me right between the eyes. It was simple. The numbers 1-15 had to be made perfectly and then stuck up on the board. They didn’t really need any Khmer to understand and soon they were desperately trying to leapfrog each other to get picked. The Cambodian people are architects by nature and soon the room was a flurry of hands. Before I knew it there was fifteen numbers on the board. But there weren’t fifteen children…obviously some wanted a second chance at being picked!

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Out of ideas I asked the one Khmer boy who knew English (the Director’s son) what he wanted to do/make with the playdoh. He said that he wanted to make "cow" so I asked him to tell everybody to make cows. This was interesting as some "cow" were more like crouching tigers than cows. I had them give them to me once they were finished and then I would make smiley faces (using my nails) on the playdoh. They were then lined up on my desk for the rest of the class to see.

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"Your time is up" the other teacher said once I had finished the cows. Wow! The last hour had just flown past. Before they left I asked to have a picture with them along the whiteboard. Several were taken in true Chinese, Clark and generally Asian fashion!

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After lunch at a curry house with Dad I was due to see an "IEC material creation with Outreach Team" with absolutely no idea of what this meant. It involved having a few of the older boys and talking to them about various different things to do with their past life and what they could do in the future. It was led by the outreach team who both spoke English and translated (where possible) what the other person was saying. The kids would, in turn, then teach the others using flash cards in both English and Khmer. We then played some games. One of which involved rubber bands which had to be passed around the circle as fast as possible on straws which were held in the mouth. After making a world record in the art of speed straw rubberband racing we took some time to colour in a colouring book. We coloured in some cartoon character which I cannot name because of political and mental reasons. Some quick recreational sport ensued (as always) and after half an hour or so I left to go home thoroughly satisfied with the outcome of the day.

Work experience – Cambodian style – Day 1

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Hi it’s me, Jonathan (or more commonly known as Jonbon) and just recently I did some work experience.

Now normally, or in England, my school would give me a list of jobs to choose from and then take me out of school for a week to do the job. However, in Cambodia, my school (HOPE) is using the guise that they want us "to do what we want to do" and therefore let us roam free in the job world….ingenious. They also warned us that, because this was the first year that they were doing work experience, we had less time to do it and therefore "strongly advised" us to do it in the summer holidays. Still, eight weeks of not much….how hard could it be?

Very. In true Asian style, we decided as a family that it’d be an awful pity if we didn’t go to England to see the cousins before they are all taller than me. So a few weeks before school ended we booked our tickets for a "short" three week holiday in England. We also stayed at my good friend Sam’s place. Sam is coming out to visit for about 10 days at the end of the hols.  Still, we had plenty of time after we got back to do work experience….or at least there was a convienient little slot of two weeks in which we weren’t doing anything, bingo.  

After what I must say was a fantastic trip to England, we acclimatized and by the Monday I was all set to go….or at least that’s the face I was putting on. My tummy was a buzz of butterflies and my head was being bombarded with both reassurance and doubt. For when I told my parents about having to do work experience they were rather…enthusiastic, to say the least. I wasn’t too amused to be honest. I mean, I don’t get grumpy often..but this was an exception. The plan which they had proposed was simple. Go and do a week of learning, listening and general helping out at one of WV’s (World Vision) many street children centres. I’d have been perfectly happy doing office work for a week, why, oh why do I have to work with children on my own, who I don’t know, in a place I’ve never been to before and when they don’t speak my language? Daunting? Scary? Probably a mixture of those, with about a tonne of hyperbole! Still, after about an hour of just being still, I came to the conclusion that the only reason why I had been offered this "opportunity" (as my parents put it) was that God was going to use it for the better, or at least he wanted me to have a shot at it. So, reluctantly, I agreed.

So on Monday morning the 11th of July Dad and I headed off into the Phnom Penh rush hour traffic. The noise and thrumm of the engines is a really good way to wake up, as is the toxic fumes and general peril. Still like a salmon going upstream the tuk-tuk battled on, swerving, braking, creaking and rattling through the thick of it.

We arrived a little late and upon arrival, I was ushered into the Centre, with Dad hurrying off to work. I was introduced to Mr Pharen; the Director of the shelter. I was then asked to sign a few legal documents before I was handed a brief powerpoint on what the Centre aimed to do. Obviously I’d learn a lot more as the week progressed, but bascially they aim to help give children who live on the streets: an education, life skills and protection, via learning and presentations, on how to avoid many of the dangers on the streets. Obviously there is a criteria which WV has, to choose which kids need help the most. As I got to learn about the kids more I also learnt a bit about a few of the children. One of them has memory issues and, although she is thirteen,  learns what the youngest kids learn. There is a five year old who was found doing heavy drinking. Others were found using drugs. The centre holds a maximum of thirty kids from three-fifteen years old and as far as I know it has always been full since it started in 1993. They then keep them from about six months to a year. It should be noted that the children can only come if their parents agree and the child wants to go as well. WV gives them the opportunity, but it is the child’s decision in the end.

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"Let’s go and see the children" Mr Pharen offered, "Ok" I replied as we headed off up the stairs to the classrooms. The layout of the building is confusing. On the second floor you proceed to the balcony where there is a narrow staircase welded to the wall. Upon going up you find yourself in the classrom area with sheet metal walls. The area is divided into two classrooms, one for the older, more advanced children and one for the younger kids. There is one full time teacher and one part time teacher.

"They have been so excited to see you" Mr Pharen said to me as I waved back at the kids. After inspecting the other classroom Mr Pharen happily said "You can teach the older ones English". Bam!! What a way to drop it huh? And without further ado Mr Pharen left down the stairs, leaving me to my fate with twelve Khmer kids who don’t speak any English.

Now you should understand at this point that my famaily has a long teaching history on both sides. My Mum taught pre-schoolers and autistic/deaf kids, my Dad taught Engineering at Uni, my Auntie teaches at a local school, my Grandma (Dad’s mum) taught English to Indonesians (no connection there…), my Grannie (Mum’s mum) taught home economics, my Grandpa (Mums dad) taught Physics in a boarding school. I should have seen it coming. I didn’t. Gee, thanks God, brilliant, and people say that you don’t have a sense of humour… Still, I had to think of something to do with these kids. So I ran through the English alphabet and numbers. I got them to write it out on their own, I came up with things I’d have never have thought of doing during what I had been told would be a ‘watch and learn’ experience, heh, yeah right. From 8:40am – 11:00am teaching English became my job. Then at eleven they went downstairs to set up the tables for lunch.

Lunch it seemed was always rice with a watery soup with boiled or pickled veg and if you were lucky you may get a chicken bone with no meat on it. The smell varied, but it was evident that these kids were gonna eat whatever because a hot lunch is always better than eating someone elses garbage!

After lunch they would go to bed for a quick nap until 1:30pm. This long lunch break is standard across Cambodia as the middle of the day is often too hot to work in with temperatures easily reaching 35 degrees in the shade at this time of year. So at 12:00 I left the centre to go and meet Dad for lunch at some Malaysian restaurant he had heard about. There we sat and chatted amiably about the day so far and my position as English teacher. He also had gone through a change at work. Upon arrival he discovered that he had been appointed as the Head of the IT Department at WV. A big day all round called for some of the best mee goreng I’d had in a long time! Whilst Dad opted for the kwey cheow to celebrate. After that we headed off in search of a coffee shop and chatted there for a while.

Going back made me feel sleepy, partly because you do feel sleepy after eating a big meal and partly because the children looked extremely tired having just been woken up. We headed off upstairs and instead of going into the classroom we went onto the balcony where there was a large table and lots of
sewing materials. Great..sewing, glad to come across you again. I mean, I’ve done sewing before…but with varying success and no matter what Mum says I’m not gonna be a seamstress! Not feeling too confident I sat round the table with the street kids and (by this time they had figured out that I understood mimes) they showed me how to tie the knots and what size the sewing should be. It took me a little while to grasp it but by the end I was cooking..or at least i wasn’t stabbing myself with the needle anymore! This is all part of what the centre aims to do, teach the kids life skills so that they can get jobs when they grow up, rather than being forced onto the streets again. After the embroidery sesson we headed downstairs to play volleyball and football with the kids in the courtyard. Even for kids of their age they are very talented. I can definately see Cambodia being successful in the Olympics in a few years!

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So, quike frankly exhusted and sweaty I returned home at around five in the evening. First day definately had its surprises but I came out feeling good. Just four more days to go!

More reflections from Laos

Cows are friendly animals, but their situational awareness is not good. This was my well researched conclusion after 15 hours of cow-encounters on Lao trunk routes. As we sped along roads largely devoid of traffic we had repeated episodes of  "will they, won’t they, … , oh, … , yes they will: b-r-r-r-a-a-a-k-k-k-e-!" to let the herd wander serenely across the road until, when they were almost fully across they noticed we were there and panicked galloping off in all directions.

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The sun bakes down on the dry, dusty, deserted village scene. Little sign of life, but on closer inspection there are faint sounds of activity coming from the old wooden school building. Inside, forty attentive children are learning their Lao script.

Village school, Phine

Village school, Phine

At the back, two little boys sit quietly by the wall. Too young for school, they nevertheless come day after day out of curiousity – school is the most interesting thing on offer in this quiet village, even if you don’t understand what is going on…

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The landscape en route to the next village was dry as dry, which made the sudden sight of fresh green crops seem somewhat surreal. This village has built (with a little help from World Vision) their own irrigation dam that stores enough water from the rainy season to support crops all through the six-month dry season.

Rural road in Phine district

Village-built irrigation dam

Tobacco irrigated by the village dam

This project was established in the hope that it would enable the villagers to grow vegetables and reduce the chronic malnutrition in this village that is common to many parts of rural Laos. But for all the good intentions the villagers have chosen instead to grow tobacco – a cash crop that enables them to purchase that mobile phone or TV. Dotted around are the buildings constructed to dry the tobacco. The fuel? Wood from the forest. So here is a project intended to support rural health that is growing a crop that damages health and in the process is putting greater pressure on deforestation! It underlines the challenge of development, where the best of intentions frequently lead to unintended adverse consequences. The villagers are happy though, and proud of what they have built, treating us to a feast of barbecued fish – caught from their very own irrigation lake.

Communal meal at Atsaphone village to celebrate the irrigation dam

Apsara!

"I like invite you see Khmer dancing!" said our little security guard excitedly, and presented us with tickets to see the National Dancers of the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts. A few days later we all climbed into The Beast and set off for the riverside where the show was shortly to begin. Our guard was warmly greeted at the entrance (his wife works as one of the dancers and costume makers) and we were ushered to front row seats.

The lights dimmed and a lady in traditional costume strode onto the stage and bowed. Tucked into a leather holder at her side were a variety of nondescript Khmer wind instruments – flutes and horns of the kind seen in the markets. But as she took each one and played it in turn, the most amazing, haunting, melancholic music emerged in a long continuous stream – we suddenly realised that she was breathing in and playing simultaneously and was able to sustain the flow of sound for several minutes at a time. For the finale of her performance she used a trio of horns made from real buffalo horn, from which she extracted a strident, penetrating, rythmic, echoing, sound of great intensity the like of which I have never heard before. Once again the minor key gave the music a mournful tone.

Khmer flute

Next came a dance that told the story, with pride and good humour, of rice cultivation and harvesting traditions, with the men and women performing their separate roles.

A "coconut shell dance" followed, each dancer having empty coconut shells strapped to various points on their arms and legs. With great creativity and timing they sustained a complex rhythm, moving their arms and legs to bring their shells into contact with the other dancers’.

Rice harvest dance

Coconut shell dance

Now came the centrepiece of the show – the Apsara dance. Dating back many centuries the Apsara dance was originally performed only for royalty and the upper class, and was almost completely wiped out by the Khmer Rouge who imposed a period of "massive cultural forgetting", putting to death everyone they found who was associated with the dance. The dance consists of slow, graceful, sinuous movements that tell a story (if you know that to look for!). The dancers are selected at an early age while their bones are still supple and spend many years in training. Repeated hand exercises give them fingers and joints that are extraordinarily elastic and able to perform the unique contortions of this dance.

Apsara dance

Apsara dance

Apsara dance

After a few other dances rounded up the show we returned home having thoroughly enjoyed this high quality feast of Khmer culture, our security guard glowing with rightful pride.