*Sorry if I misspell everyone's names. I will do my best to spell them all out correctly but I am not used to a lot of the spelling of names and places in Khmer and I often do not see them written down. If I forget anyone I apologize again, I have been meeting a lot of new people lately.
I arrived in Phnom Penh Friday evening and was picked up by my friend Maryann who is the Director of a NGO based in the city. We rode a tuk tuk* back to to Maryann's house where I deposited my stuff before hit the town for some food and a little wine.
*tuk tuk – a scooter pulling a small carriage. The carriage is an attachment that will fit on any moto.
Arriving at night into a new city in a developing country can be a little bit intimidating. I was EXTREMELY fortunate to have a friend in the city to welcome me with open arms. We saw a little bit of the city before calling it a night because we had to catch an 830 am bus the next morning.
Graduation at the PEPY Ride School is set for Tuesday so we are heading up early to do a little cleaning and a lot of preparation. I say we not in the sense that I have any idea what is going on, but in the sense that I am along for the ride.
Saturday we take a bus to Siem Reap which is home to the Angkor Wat Temple complex, pretty much the largest tourist attraction in Cambodia and often referred to as the 8th Wonder of the World. I didn't have a chance to see the temples on this day but will be seeing them later. It was a 5 hour bus ride up to the city and I rode up with Maryann, Shannon (office manager for PEPY), Caitlin (Intern for PEPY), and Lilly (Caitlin's friend). Once in Siem Riep we grabbed some lunch at a great little place called the Singing Tree Cafe. Good food that at least partially came from their garden, the restaurant appeared to be somewhat a center for progressive socialites.
After Lunch Maryann and I headed out around town with the help of a great tuk tuk driver and dropped off flyers and some of the local schools trying to recruit teachers for a literacy camp that PEPY will be running in a few months. It was fun to be able to see a variety of High Schools in the area.
Back at the hotel we met up with the rest of our group and made plans for dinner. Dinner was done and everyone headed to the hotel except for Maryann and I who opted to get a massages before calling it a night. Our group now added Daniella (one of the PEPY founders), Tawry (Phnom Penh native who is sorta working with PEPY), Laura (PEPY intern).
The massage was a Khmer massage which is a little like Thai massage but less painful. I was still pretty tight from all the traveling that I have been doing so I think I would have like a little bit harder massage, but I am definitely not complaining about an $8 massage that was pretty dang good. It was pretty funny though to see the Khmer girls gossiping as I did not understand anything they were saying and I don't think that Maryann translated quite everything for me..
We got up early and headed out to the school today. The school consists of several buildings that are in a small village. There are two main classroom buildings that have several classrooms in each, and administrative building and a house that PEPY built to house volunteers and PEPY workers when thee are on site.
We had a lot of school supplies with us so we rented a truck for the 1.5 hour drive to the school. I got to sit in the back, it was fun.
Schools in Cambodia are government run so NGOs don't actually run them. Many NGO's have adopted these schools though and provide support to the school through things like English and Computer Programs. The PEPY Ride school is doing these things and has a fleet of 100 XO laptops that the kids are learning on. English and Computer classes are volunteer and happen during times that the kids do not have other courses. The computers are powered by a solar system that PEPY installed.
At the school we were greeted by many of the kids who were hanging out there on their day off. They were very excited to see us and following the trend I have seen in the few days I have been here, thought my beard was hilarious.
We spent some of the afternoon visiting Child Clubs which are extracurricular clubs that take place in the surrounding villages. They focus on peer to peer education and making it fun so that kids are excited to come to them every Sunday, when they do not have school. The clubs are relatively new for this area but seem to be having a very successful start. The kids here LOVE learning and just need to be given the opportunity to do so.
Sunday evening we ate a group dinner that we got from the nearby city of Charang. It was great to sit down with everyone who was living in the house and meet them a little bit better. I tried to stay up chatting the night away with Shannon, but failed and slowly drifted away while laying in a hammock on the porch. It was an early night for me.
I spent the better part of this morning hanging out on the porch and yelling hello to the kids whenever they ran by. Maryann and Daniella were interviewing potential English teachers for the school so there was not a ton of work to be doing.
We did manage to do a little bit of physical labor as a truck with 5.5 kilotons of rice showed up and we needed to unload it. This turned into (as everything does) a community project with lots of kids, teachers, and other random people pitching in to get it done. It really is amazing how fast things go when you have a fleet of kids helping. It feels like lots of ants, not particularly impactful as an individual but as a colony they can do some serious work.
The afternoon was full of work though as Shannon and I started the bike painting project. This involved painting the letters PEPY and a number on all 80 bikes while trying to chat with kids and get them a little involved in our project. I felt a little like a sideshow for the kids as they loved to come and practice their English on me. This led to a large group constantly following me around (I was the only one painting at the time) and laughing up a storm whenever I made a mistake (which was pretty common). They really loved it when I accidently dipped my beard in some paint... The best part was that the the girls kept telling me “pretty” which I am assuming was meant for the bikes, but I had fun pretending I was being showered in compliments.
We painted bikes for pretty much the entire afternoon until about 6 pm when the rest of the PEPY crew showed up to pitch in. Enter Tom (A Brit who is a PEPY intern), Tim, (PEPY employee), Rithy (Tawry's older brother who hangs out with PEPY and helps a lot), Tek (former PEPY intern and a Cambodia-American) and Siek (Ritty's friend).
We did take a little break from painting to watch one of the kids in the school show us some of his break dancing moves. In the picture below you can see him in partial move. He did a handstand, walked on his hands across a classroom, picked up my water bottle with his mouth, turned around and walked back across the room. I won't lie, it was pretty dang impressive. We took our picture together.
There were now 15 of us living in the house including 3 teachers and 12 PEPY staff/volunteers/friends which makes for very large meals and lots of sharing. It is a lot of fun as all the people here are hear so that they can help so the general attitude of the place is amazing.
Tuesday July 22nd
We are scheduled for a 7 am graduation for the 6th graders and an end of school celebration for the rest of the school. The 6th graders all get bicycles as a present so that hopefully they will make the journey to 7th grade which is at a different school. Transportation seems to be one of the big problems for getting kids to school and hopefully by giving the kids bikes it gives them an incentive to try. Every other kid in the school is getting a 10 Kg bag of rice which means we have moved a LOT of rice lately. We have 5.5 kilo-tons sitting downstairs ready to be passed out.
To set up we had an army of kids move desks out of classrooms for their parents to sit on. Again, the army of kids got the job done extremely quickly.
Graduation went very well and there were several speeches given. Daniella gave a great one in English that was translated into Khmer for the kids and their parents. There were probably about 800 people in attendance so it was quite the event for town. I spent a good bit of the graduation playing with some of my new friends as they loved taking pictures with my camera. This quickly turned into taking pictures of me with my camera and then taking pictures of them with me, it was a lot of fun.
In addition to the normal festivities one of the Child to Child clubs put on a Play for us. It was in Khmer so I can't tell you much about it, but the audience loved it. They even took it to the next level and went down the road to another community to perform it again right after graduation.
It was something else to hand out 80 bikes to kids and to see their excitement about receiving a present that gave them a unique ability to get around and was theirs. Very cool.
We spent the rest of the afternoon doing chores around the house and ended the evening with a movie night for the local community. We showed several educational movies similar to Sesame Street, a slide show, and a video of the Drama that the Child to Child group put on earlier in the day. The whole evening ended in an impromptu dance party which involved a few of us, a few teachers, a few kids and some local men with no teeth. Daniella's quote of the night was “Its not a party till the men with no teeth show up”. Personally, I had a great time dancing with the toothless men.
I have spent the last day and a half getting to know one of the Kmer guys that is with our group named Ritty. Ritty grew up on and island near Phnom Penh and now lives in the city
working in Real Estate. He is only 21 but has amazing ideas about how things should be going. His grasp of environmental problems and how to fix them is very profound and he has started several small projects in his hometown to help clean up his island. We had a great conversation about how hard it has been to change his friends' attitudes towards cleanliness and the environment. It was something that he had struggled with and and finally been able to do after lots of pain. He learned that by being an example to his friends he could show them better than he ever could simply telling them to do something.
In addition to all of the cool things he does, Ritty is simply fun. He gets down on the dance floor with me, works hard doing all the misc chores and tasks around the school and never stops smiling. He makes anything more fun and I am loving being here with him.
Ritty's sister is here also and has been here for a day longer than him. The family resemblance in attitude and intelligence is amazing. She is also what I would call a progressive Khmer. She is in college right now in the city. I think the parents of these two must be incredible people to turn out such wonderful individuals in two children.
Oh, I also tried eating meat today. I have been saying for a while that I will be more flexible with my diet while traveling for cultural sensitivity and out of need to be eating well. I put a helping of something on my plate during lunch with the teachers and school staff and started to eat it when I realized it had chicken in it. I probably would not have taken it if I had realized that but it was on my plate so I took it as a sign and ate a piece. I got it down... but did not like it at all. I really didn't think I would have a problem eating meat but I just did not like the way it felt in my mouth. I ended up picking out the chicken and giving it to Tom who ate it for me. The worst part was when I accidently ate a piece of fatty chicken though, I simply hated how it felt in my mouth.
I guess this means that I am pretty stuck being vegetarian for now. I will probably try again with some seafood soon and see how that goes, but I am more wary now... the funny part is that I am really frustrated about it.
Wednesday July 23rd
Early morning for me, I woke up at 6 and started moving because I couldn't sleep anymore. Nothing very exciting today except that after a full day of work we went into town for dinner. It was interesting because dinner was at a place where tourist busses stop and they were the first white people I had seen in a while that were not a part of my group. I felt immediately separated from them since I arrived in the back of a pickup from a local school and they were on busses. It is a hard feeling because in reality I am doing the same things that they are, or at least will be in a few weeks. Kinda a reality gut check in a way that I was not expecting and did not enjoy. I am still not sure how to feel about joining the ranks of the tourist backpackers soon.
Most of the crew headed back to Phnom Penh early in the morning but I stuck around with Maryann and Daniella to help out a little more. Basically, I watched some of the teachers build a compost shed and tried to help a little but didn't serve much purpose, pretty much my fault for not speaking the language. I then spent the rest of the day helping Vanay (another teacher) clean all the sheets for the beds that we were sleeping on. After scrubbing 15 sheets and pillow cases... I have a new found respect for people who do it all the time.
In the afternoon we went back to Siem Reap and met up with Shannon. Daniella and Maryann went out to do a little work stuff Shannon and I did the only logical thing, got massages. I can't say that I am in love with the massage technique that they use here. It is a little softer than I like but I definitely enjoy it.
The decision was made to venture to Preak Vihear the next day.
This is the oldest temple complex in Cambodia that is about 1100 years old. It was just declared a World Heritage site about 3 weeks ago and is the source of much conflict between Thailand and Cambodia as to who actually owns it. This means that there are a lot of soldiers from both sides hanging out around the temple. We were a little nervous about going up there but it did not feel tense at all as the soldiers were sorta hanging out with each other where their camps overlapped. This was definitely the most remote I had been in Cambodia as it was a 5 hour drive north from Siem Reap. It was a good adventure and a pretty cool temple.
The land around the temple still had a lot of land mines as this was one of the last strongholds of the Khmer Rouge and was not vacated by them until 1998.
It was a cool visit because there were pretty much no other tourists around. Sunday is the election so apparently the tourists are staying closer to populated areas. I am pretty dang sure that this place was FAR off the typical tourist path anyway. The road up to the top of the mountain that the temple was on was enough to keep most people away. We'll just say I have seen a lot of 4x4 trails in the US that are not even close to as tricky and steep as this road, and it was raining. The fun part was watching the moto's (scooters basically) go up and down the roads also.
These are various Temple shots and group shots. The temple is on top of a mountain so it has some pretty serious views.
The soldiers were enjoying taking their pictures with us. It was a little strange to have men in uniforms with guns and grenades hanging off their vests putting their arms around me for a picture. The second picture is of Shannon coming down some stairs, they were steep.
It rained on us a fair amount also... These are the steps leading down to the Thai border, and Maryann in the rain.
We hopped in the Camry (because that is what 70% of the cars here are) and headed back to Siem Reap. Along the way we decided to go all the way back to Phnom Penh today which meant a solid 10-12 hours of traveling. Not a very eventful day. Tomorrow should be interesting because it is election day.
Here is Shannon and Daniella midway into the first car trip.
I had an interesting realization today. It is going to be very different when I am traveling by myself soon. Maryann speaks excellent Khmer and is pretty much doing everything for us right now. English is not uncommon here, but many of the places that I would like to visit are not on the typical tourist path so I think I am going to end up paying a bit of a premium in order to have a driver with me that speaks English. I will certainly be more limited than I originally thought. This makes me extremely thankful to Marryann for introducing me to the country and showing me the ropes. I would have had a very different experience if it were not for her offer to show me around.