A Travellerspoint blog

October 2011

An eventful first week in Siem Reap...

ABCs and Rice School

semi-overcast 26 °C

I can’t believe I’ve been in Siem Reap for less than a week – I already feel like I live here! It so relaxing being here compared to last time as well as now that I’ve done all of the touristy stuff, I can pretty much just spend my time when I’m not at school chilling out or on Pub Street. Which actually I have done more than teach so far as Cambodians sure love their pubic holidays! I’ve only taught for one and a half day, as Friday was a pubic holiday because on Saturday it was the 7th anniversary of the King’s coronation and Monday was a public holiday due to the King’s Father’s Birthday. So really Cambodians don’t need to look far to find a reason for a public holiday. I guess I really shouldn’t complain about having to go to school on Melbourne Cup Day!

I’m working at a different school this time to when I was here in January. This time I’m at ABCs and Rice, which makes Anjali House, where I was last time, look like a palace! Not that it’s in bad nick or anything, but it isn’t even two years old and is in a poorer area of town. The reason it’s called ABCs and Rice is because a lot of families in the area had previously either had to sell some of their children to be able to afford to feed the rest, or their children couldn’t go to school, as they were needed to work selling postcards and what not to tourists. So now all the families that send their kids to ABCs get a monthly rice ration.

The school escaped the floods pretty well, just the roads where all the kids live are still flooded, which poses a big problem seeing that apparently one in seven Cambodian kids don’t live until the age of five, mainly due to water born diseases. So at ABCs there are five classrooms with no walls or doors, but they do have fans. There’s a communal library area, a squat toilet and that’s about it. A Canadian girl called Tammy runs the place, and she has the most amazing life story, which includes the fact that she originally came here on an intrepid tour on holidays. She said she’s been on the tour for about four days when they came to Siem Reap to see the temples and all that jazz. She ended visiting an orphanage in the morning, but planned to meet up with the others and go out to the temples in the afternoon, but that didn’t happen for any of the three days they were in Siem Reap. In the end she signed a lease when she had about $100 in her bank account, quit her job back home, and the place has just continued to grow and grow. The before and after photos are amazing, how quickly the place has transformed in less than two years. She’s also just leased the adjacent block and is going to build on that a fish farm and chicken coop to (a) feed the kids and (b) sell at the market for get money for the school, a vegie garden, a toilet block with Western-style composting toilets, a house for the caretaker and an extra play area for the kids. However the plans for that have been put massively back because of the flooding, so now they have to wait about another five months before they can start.

Tammy’s whole life is devoted to these kids. She’s still never been to the temples, as she can’t justifying spending $20 when that money could go to the school. She’s going back to Canada in April for a month to organize some fundraisers, and so far she’s going to be there for 28 days, and only has 3 free days. And on Christmas last year she hired a jumping castle for the kids on the day (as it’s not a holiday for them here which might come as a shock to some of you!) and apparently they were just in awe – they’d never seen anything like it and they didn’t even know you were meant to jump on it at first!

So school starts at 8am (which means leaving home at 7.30, even 7.15 if we have to print out stuff for class on the way, as we cycle to school – who would have thought I would (a) get up that early and (b) do so much exercise!) for the morning class. When the bell rings (which is a teacher shaking a hand held bell) they all line up and sing the national anthem facing the flag and then they do this army at ease and attention stuff, and then they do their morning exercises which is so cute! It mainly consists of star jumps and circling their hands and their heads…oh and there’s squats too. Then there are three lessons with a five minute play in between each one, and they finish at 11. Then the afternoon class runs from 2 until 5, which is pretty much the same format except they line up and sing the national anthem at the end. However, Fridays are fun days and they just get to play games and sing songs and they love it, because being the all the volunteers they’re still learning English, just not everything is learnt by rote as it is in Khmer school. However, this week we had that day on Thursday because there was no school on Friday and one of the volunteers ‘Teacher Ash’ was leaving.

It’s the same idea as when I was at Anjali as in the kids that come to ABCs in the morning go to public school in the afternoon and vice versa, however being a much poorer community not all the kids can afford to go to school. Some are sponsored by ABC or the school itself and I think some might be sponsored by private donors but that’s about it. This time I’m in with the youngest class, appropriately named the ‘Monkey Room’. There are 28 kids in the morning class, which makes the afternoon seem like a breeze! They’re aged between 5 and 10 (as the class level they are in at ABCs is determined by their English aptitude, not their age) and of course they are all super cute! Obviously a lot more Khmer is spoken in the Monkey class than in the others, however the kids are very good at phrases including “hello teacher, what is your name?”, “teacher, where are you from”, “teacher, how are you today” and “teacher, how did you sleep well last night”. Also when the bell rings they have the phrase down pat “teacher, may I please go out and play?!”

So with all of this free time it seems quite unbelievable that I have to set my alarm for school tomorrow, as so much else has been going on! But I’m quite lucky really, as about two weeks before I got here volunteers couldn’t go to school because either the school was flooded or the roads to get there were. Apparently even just to go into town for something to do the place we’re staying at had to hire a truck as the roads were so washed out, but this only happened once a day as it is much more expensive than bikes or tuk tuks! The road to our guesthouse is now so washed out and bumpy that just by riding your bike to the end of the street you get a numb bum, let alone the half hour it takes to ride to school!

Anyway, it seems already like I’ve told you so much about school even though I’ve barely been there! So stay tuned for some of the adventures we’ve been having out of the classroom as next week there are four public holidays in a row not including the weekend!

Posted by ljmac2 09:29 Archived in Cambodia Tagged children siem_reap school pub_street Comments (1)

Phnom Penh

you may find this a depressing entry, but I am just trying to be insightful...don't worry I'm having a blast, just needed to get this off my chest!

sunny 30 °C
View South East Asia mark II on ljmac2's travel map.

I always said that I wanted to go back to Cambodia, but never dreamed that I would return so soon. Yet, less than 12 months later since I kissed the $2 cocktail goodbye, I found myself back on Cambodian soil (…or should I say sludge with all of the rain there has been?) Even though for the queen of planning things this trip was a pretty last minute decision, when I booked the ticket the 21st of October still seemed ages away…at that stage Geelong didn’t look like they had a hope of winning the flag! Yet they did (and thank god I decided to hang around for that), but like all good things that come to an end, at the end starts something new.

When I landed in Phnom Penh I hit the ground running. Having never been there before I wanted to make the most of my three days before I start volunteering, which sounds like not very long, but it’s actually the perfect amount of time to see everything there is to see if you don’t want to cram everything in. Killing fields, tick, S21, tick, Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda, tick, Russian Market, tick, Central Market, tick, Wat Phnom, tick. I didn’t really know what to expect; I’ve heard good and bad reports about the city, but what surprised me the most was that Westerners are fairly hard to come by. Sure they are the reason tuk tuks line the streets outside the tourist hot spots, but in their defense, I think it would be much harder to get work here than in Siem Reap. I mean in Siem Reap the World Heritage Listed Temples of Ankgor are the main drawcard, a symbol of prosperity that the Khmers are incredibly proud off. However, besides being the capital of Cambodia, which brings with it being the country’s largest and wealthiest city, Phnom Penh is most well known for it’s museums of genocide, being the Tuol Sleng Prison, better known as S21, and the Killing Fields of Cheoung Ek.

It sounds horrible but these are two of the main reasons I wanted to come to Phnom Penh. Not that I would splurge a grand on a return ticket purely for this reason, but I read “First They Killed My Father” by Loung Ung, a survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime, when I was coming to Cambodia last year, and for those of you who don’t know, I’m a war-survivor-book junkie. Once I pop I can’t stop. Since then I’ve read Ung’s sequal “Lucky Child” and countless other books about the Khmer Rouge’s reign and it just fascinates me. Yes, there are countless cases of genocide in world history, even cases when people have persecuted those who have previously seemed to be their ‘own’, but in a way I think the atrocities performed by the Khmer Rouge have helped make the Cambodian people the humble and kind race they are today. Which is amazing seeing (a) it was their ‘own’ that brought this upon them, and (b) Westerners didn’t step in and help until the very last moment - the four head honchos of the Khmer Rouge who are still alive only began to be tried in 2010. When I was volunteering in January, one of the teachers said to me “did you know we had a war in Cambodia?” I wanted to say, “Of course, how can you not know?!”, but when I said yes he simply replied “that is why we are so poor”. He didn’t say that it was unfair that a quarter of the country’s population was murdered, nor that no one rushed to their aid – he said it so matter of factly he may as well have been telling me the sky was blue.

I did the ‘museums’ of the Khmer Rouge in non-chronological order. Walking into the killing fields is a bit surreal, as besides the beggars at the front gate, it looks just like a park with a big monument in the middle and a museum off to the side. Yet you know there’s more to it than that. As you walk closer to said monument, you notice it is piled high with 8000 skulls of those who met their untimely deaths at the Killing Fields. There are also remnants of their clothes. However, what is most disturbing, is that due to the rain, remnants that weren’t able to be excavated from the graves (of which there are over 100 but only half have been discovered) are starting to rise through the earth, and now litter the surface that the tourist walk on. The park curators collect them and keep the area in immaculate condition, but I guess there’s only so much you can do with such a large amount of rain in such a short amount of time. Walking through the fields is quite a haunting experience – you can hear the squeals of laughter of the children playing at the school next door and the flora is so lush and green that the area really would be quite beautiful, if it weren’t for the signs indicating a location of a mass grave, or certain trees that the Khmer Rouge preferred for performing certain atrocities.

Most people I’ve met since I’ve been here have said that they found S21 harder to go to than the Killing Fields, but that the Killing Fields was the more important one to see. To me the most disturbing thing about S21 is the fact that it was a former high school, which the Khmer Rouge saw as an opportunity to get rid of the intellectuals and torture them, all in one fowl swoop. It’s pretty much just four buildings with three levels each that have been shoddily divided into miniscule cells, slapped together with bricks and mortar so that if you wanted to lie down and take a nap, you’d have to bend your knees. The thing that really gets you though is the thousands upon thousands of mugshots they have there as ‘exhibits’. They were taken as everyone went into the prison, but they may as well be a way of recording the dead, as only seven of the 17,000 people imprisoned in S21 survived.

So I realize this has been a rather depressing first blog, but as I often do, I just feel like I needed to throw my opinion around a bit. I’ve met a few people who have said they reckon S21 should be knocked down, and particularly at the Killing Fields, heard many people loudly whispering (and self-righteously might I add) “I’m not going to be disrespectful and take photos here”. No, I don’t agree with getting your wide angle lens as close as you possibly can to the sign next to the mass grave just so you can make sure you can read how many bodies were found there. But seeing truly is believing. You can appreciate it as much as you want from afar, but you can’t really grasp the gravity of the event unless you’re there. Realistically however, not everyone is going to be able to visit Phnom Penh, so then the photos of people who have been there are the next best thing. They don’t need to be posted on Facebook and splashed around in slide shoes, but I believe they are important. Besides, the tuk tuk drivers want to take you there, the people selling the tickets (which are $2 by the way – the Palace is $6.25 and I would argue it is no where near as important) want you to take your cameras in. All except one of the masterminds behind the operation still deny it ever happened. With proof like this, this should warrant the throwing away of their key.

Oh and in case you didn’t get the memo, I am having a good time…happy hour; tick, tick, tick!

Posted by ljmac2 05:18 Archived in Cambodia Tagged cambodia phnom_penh s21 killing_fields khmer_rouge Comments (0)

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