Tuesday, September 29, 2009

S.C.A.O. & C.O.S.O.

For all it's beauty and growing tourism industry, Cambodia is still one of the poorest countries in Asia. Signs of poverty are everywhere and we found it impossible to spend a month here without using some of our time and experience to make at least a small contribution to those in need. Given that we'd both spent a year in Korea teaching English, we figured that some voluntary teaching time was the best way that we could help, so while planning our trip a few months ago, we allocated some extra time to spend at a few orphanages along the way.

The first orphanage we went to was S.C.A.O. in Phnom Penh. We'd heard about this organisation through 2 lovely friends of ours (Patty and Janine), who had visited S.C.A.O. on their travels through South-East Asia. S.C.A.O. is open to visitors who email or call ahead and welcome volunteers who are available for anything from a day to a few months. On the days we spent at S.C.A.O., there were enough volunteers to cover the English classes run by the orphanage, so we didn't end up teaching any classes, however, even just hanging out and playing games with the kids is something the organisation encourages...the kids loved it... and so did we! There are currently about 20 kids living at S.C.A.O. and dozens of others from poor neighbouring areas who attend daily English classes run by the orphanage. If you want to learn more about S.C.A.O., or would like to help, see their website; http://www.savechildreninasia.org

Save Children in Asia Organisation

The second orphanage we visited was in Siem Reap, in Northern Cambodia. Despite being home to Angkor Wat and the large number of tourists this site attracts, Siem Reap province is one of the poorest provinces in the country. The NGO presence in Siem Reap is large and there are ample opportunities for people wanting to make a contribution - be it financial, material or through volunteering time. Through some people we met in our guest house, we were introduced to C.O.S.O. an orphanage housing over 50 kids on the outskirts of Siem Reap city (http://www.cosocambodia.org/ this is an old website and is expected to be updated soon). As the branch of C.O.S.O. that we visited is relatively new and still trying to get on it's feet, it doesn't receive the number of volunteers that other organisations do, therefore we were given the opportunity to teach full days of classes to children of all different ages and English levels. We were inspired by their tenacity and eagerness to learn... it certainly showed us a different side to teaching when compared with our experiences in private schools in Korea, where kids are comparatively well off and not so keen to learn (for a number of understandable reasons, mind you). Between classes, we spent our time hanging out with these amazing kids who showed us so much love it was incredible.

Cambodia Orphan Save Organisation

While we were considering volunteering at orphanages, we were, at times, a little conflicted as to the best course of action, given the potential negative effects that a changing flow of volunteers could have on the kids. Continuity is important, however, the message we got from the organisations we contacted was that without volunteers (even those who are only able to stay around for a few days) many organisations wouldn't have the support they need to meet the daily needs of the children... basically, any time you can give is greatly appreciated. The whole experience was very eye-opening and moving, and we'd personally recommend it to anyone going to Cambodia.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Pains, trains and automobiles...

Our last couple of weeks in Cambodia were action packed...so, we have selected a few highlights (in no particular order) that sum up our time in the north.

#1 Bamboo Train

Imagine a small bamboo raft of sorts plonked on top a of a few old train wheels, then add a glorified lawn mower motor and throw a rubber band in the mix and you have yourself a bamboo train. Pretty cool huh? We thought so anyway, and an hour long ride on this shakey hunk-o-junk is what drew us to Battambang. Cruising through the rice paddies at a lazy 30kph on Cambodia's one and only railway line, we often encountered oncoming bamboo trains which required us (or them) to stop and dismantle the train in order to allow the others to pass. Lots of fun!

We were a little nervous before our bamboo train began

#2 Slow boat to Siem Reap

Given the choice of a couple of hours on a bus or 7 hours on what is undoubtedly the most scenic boat ride in Cambodia, we opted for the latter... even if this did involve some seriously hard wooden seats. The scenery was stunning; rice paddies, floating villages and nature reserves passed us by. The width of the river fluctuated from around 20m to as narrow as our skinny little boat and out again to as far as the eye could see. At the narrow points, trees and branches scratched the sides of the boat, flicking spiders and ants on board and occasionally whipping us in the face... but even that was kind of fun.

Slow boat

#3 Sunset at Bakheng Mountain

Being the thrifty travellers we are, we used our amazing detective skills to discover that single day tickets purchased for Angkor Wat could also be used to gain entry to the wats at sunset the previous day... ok, so a tuk-tuk driver told us this and once we arrived at the mountain we realised that this was Siem Reap's worst kept secret - the place was packed! Luckily this didn't take away from the beauty of the sunset...

Sunset at Bakheng Mountain

#4 The Angkor Wats

Obviously a must for any trip to Cambodia and really must be seen to be fully appreciated. Rising before dawn, we (and our cameras) put in a hard days work covering the main temple ruins of the Angkor circuit. Surprisingly (or not), our favourite wasn't the famed Angkor Wat... it was the faces of Bayon and the tomb-raiderness of Ta Prom that took the cake for us. As amazing as all this was, after 4 months in Asia, we are officially templed out.

Angkor Wat


Ta Prom

#5 The confusion between a car and a bus and how many people should ride in them

Here's another few bus stories for you... In order to travel from Siem Reap to Ban Lung (about 300 kms as the crow flies), we had to travel 13 hours... south then north then east, 'cos that's what travel in Cambodia often requires due to non-existent/terrible roads... and the mighty Mekong and a lack of bridges. From Siem Reap we took a 5 hour bus to Kom Pong Cham... no air-com and yet another broken seat made this yet another unpleasant journey. At Kom Pong Cham we were supposed to be met by a mini-bus to take us a further 3 hours to Kratie... Apparently the difference between a car and a minibus is a bit confusing in Cambodia, because the 'minibus' we were directed to was, in fact, 2 taxis... for 11 people to fit in. The two of us were quite happy to squish 6 people in a car (wouldn't be the first time), but some of the other foreigners weren't so keen on the idea and managed to argue for an actual minibus...

Enter "piece-of-shit-car".

Turns out that Cambodia's worst minibus was sent for us - bamboo poles propping the seats up and giant cracks in the windshield may give you a small idea if the condition of this rust-bucket... buuut we all piled in anyway and after over an hour of stuffing around, we were finally off... then the police showed up... words and money were exchanged between the cops and the minibus guys... we were given the nod to drive off... we drove around the block... back to the depo... police say 'everyone out'... we get out... not sure why... new bus shows up... much more road worthy... Phew, so we all piled into the new bus and off we went again. All was well until the boot sprang open and Amy's bag tumbled out at 80km onto the muddy road...no real biggie - just a muddy bag and wet clothes. Five minutes further down the road, an accident was narrowly avoided by a quick swerve to dodge a pair of amorous cows attempting to make baby cows on the road.
We made it to Kratie in one piece and arranged another mini bus to take us to Ban Lung the next day...we weren't exactly surprised to find that they crammed a few extra people on the bus (19 people in 11 seats) but we were a little shocked when even the driver shared his seat and attempted to drive a manual van on muddy, unsurfaced roads for five hours. We can't believe we made it alive!!
The mini bus with two people sharing the drivers seat

#6 Ban Lung's crater lake

If you ever get the chance to visit the North East of Cambodia, do yourself a favour and go to the crater lake in Ban Lung. Crystal clear, refreshing water enticed us to spend an entire day by the lake swimming with the locals...the photo speaks for itself.

Crater lake, Ban Lung

#7 Surviving the "death moto"

Lying in a puddle of mud, under a motorbike and a laughing Cambodian wasn't exactly what we expected from a morning trip to Ban Lung's waterfalls, but it's where we found ourselves on our last day in Cambodia. Normally, we try to avoid motos where possible (neither of us are the biggest motorbike fans), but in a town as small as Ban Lung, tuk-tuk's aren't an option and motos are the only way to get around...so we climbed on board with an experienced Cambodian driver (the fact that he had a strong cockney accent is irrelevant but highly amusing) and set off along the steep and slippery, muddy roads to the falls. Mistake, mistake, mistake. We slipped and slid all over the road and nearly fell off a dozen times. And then we did fall off...and it hurt...and it was scary, but we were all ok, just covered in mud and a little shaken. We pretty much decided that's the end of motorbikes and us.

#8 The people of Cambodia

We've banged on about this a bit, but we really met some great people in Cambodia. The smiles and greetings from people on the street and the Cambodian sense of humour, made us feel so welcome and truly enriched our time there, making Cambodia one of our favourite places so far. Go there. You'll love it.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

How do you say 'beach' in Hebrew?

Kep - It's a small town on the southern coast of Cambodia... well, town may not be the right word... two isolated streets converging on a roundabout and a handful of seafood restaurants may be a better description. After a lot of late nights in Phnom Penh, a change of pace was welcomed - even if we did feel a little too close to nature in our garden bungalow surrounded by frogs and roosters. We hired push bikes and rode down to the beach, dodging cows and dogs on the road along the way, ate the freshest seafood and chatted to the locals... that's about all there is to do in Kep. The next day we decided to move onto the next town. 40 minutes in a tuktuk later and we arrived in Kampot, having been greeted with cries of "Helloooooo!" from every villager along the way.

Kampot is a strange place. A riverside town in disrepair, the old French colonial buildings resemble something out of a ghost movie and the town is somewhat of a ghost town. Although Kampot is about 8 times larger than Kep, we still found that there was very little to do there given the mountain, that is the towns main draw card, was 'closed'... so we took a sunset river cruise in a little 'authentic' (read; crappy, un-sea worthy, leaky) boat, which was a highlight.

Most of the buildings in Kampot shared this state of disrepair.

Keen to step things up a little, we booked ourselves on a bus to Sihanoukville - the party beach of southern Cambodia. We were excited at the prospect of some beach time (and some human interaction after 3 days of barely seeing another soul), and we eagerly boarded our 7am bus to part-ay town (as eagerly as one can do anything at 7am). About 40 minutes into the trip, we looked out the window only to see our bungalow guest house in Kep passing by. Erm... this is the complete opposite direction to where we were supposed to be going. After a little confusion, we discovered that we'd somehow been put on the bus back to Phnom Penh... NO! We want beach!

A few phone calls later between the bus guy and the guest house guy in Kampot (who sold us the ticket), we were standing on the side of the deserted street waiting to be picked up by a tuktuk that our Kampot guest house had sent to collect us and take us back to Kampot. Once back in Kampot, the apologetic guest house owner had a share taxi waiting to take us to Sihanoukville at no extra cost. Nice guy.

Share taxi... now, there's an interesting experience. To save on costs, Cambodian taxi drivers aim to squeeze as many people as humanly possible into one car over a long distance. Our trip to Shinaoukville was luxury with our standard 5 seater taxi carrying 7 people the 2 hours to the beach. Of course, no journey of ours would be complete without a few fruit-cakes in the mix. This time we had; (in the back seat with us) stinky French guy and his Cambodian girl friend who liked to leaf through magazines pointing out all the white people and wait until we put our earphones in to start talking to us. Sharing the front seat we had "The Mute" and the red-bull-guzzling Cambodian granny who, after guzzling her red-bull, suffered from verbal diarrhea and profuse sweating... we're surprised her heart held out the whole trip.

Arriving in Sihanoukville, we checked into a bungalow overlooking the sea and headed out for a relaxing day on the beach... or so we thought. Choruses of "lady, you want bracelet/ massage/ manicure/ pedicure... you buy from me... you promise me... maybe later... where you from? G'day mate... dingo stole your baby... etc etc" made the day a whole lot less relaxing and more expensive than we'd anticipated, but after we'd been massaged, manicured and plucked to within an inch of our lives, we enjoyed getting to know the friendly beach sellers and quickly made favourites/BFF's. An older woman named Annie became our Cambodian mum, and we now have a number of adopted little sisters. All good fun.

Amy with one of the girls selling bracelets and Annie our Cambodian mum.

The view from our bungalow.

Sunset on Serendipity beach.

As we settled down for a beer after dinner on our first night, we bumped into a few Israeli guys we'd met in Phnom Pehn (actually, I think they were following us). Alex/Bob - whose hair bares a striking resemblance to a blonde Sideshow Bob, and Nitzan/George - who is an uncanny cross between George Michael and George Clooney. We spent the next week bar hopping and beach bumming with these two and a brood of Israelis they'd met along the way (yeah, we're fluent in Hebrew now too). Many a Mekong bucket was consumed and many a sunrise was seen in Sihanoukville, making it somewhat difficult to leave... but eventually we did... nursing nasty hangovers.

Alex (side-show Bob) with Phil

We met George Clooney!!