More Adventures in Phnom Penh

Trip Start Oct 14, 2005
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Trip End Ongoing


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Sunday, November 13, 2005

Phnom Penh - 3rd to 7th November and 10th to 11th November

We spent a few days in Phnom Penh as part of our in-country training. In general it was a good time to relax and have a break from language training. As well as relaxing and some so-so training sessions, there were a few things worth writing about.

Lunch with the Ambassador

We met an ambassador ! A real live ambassador! The British Ambassador to Cambodia invited all of the new VSO volunteers from the last few months to his residence for a talk and lunch. His talk was on the political situation in the country and the British government's views on the country. He was an impressive man, very down to earth and gave a good balanced view of Cambodia. Being low brow, as we are, we disregarded the politics because the highlight was lunch in the amazing Ambassador's Residence - what a house!

Inside the house was as if a chic Chelsea "des res" had been transported to PP - all antique prints and highly polished furniture. Outside was a very neat and tidy garden with a fabulously tempting swimming pool - I (Rachel) discussed with Jo, another volunteer, about faking a fight and pushing each other in to the pool. Looking back, the fake fight was probably not really necessary and we could have just jumped in if we had wanted to, although that may have ruined it for the next lot of volunteers. Lunch was great - a whole roast pig, dauphinoise potatoes, ratatouille, rocket salad, etc. I (Bram) had to do my duty to Queen and Country and ate three helpings. Have a look at the photos - I think they picture our lunchtime soiree very well. Development work can be so hard sometimes!

Photos: Lunch with the ambassador 1 - other vols we are on ICT (in country training) with, from the left Marcia (midwife from Southampton) Ali (nurse from Southampton) Rachel (me, ginger), Jo (not sure really what she is doing, but nor is she...) Bram (not ginger), John (accountant doing stuff for Oxfam in PP).


Dara's Talk

Our language teacher, Dara, gave us a very emotional talk about his experiences between 1975 and the present day. 1975 was when the Khmer Rouge took over the country for about 4 years (and killed about 2 million people in the process). The history of the country since 1975 has been terrible and Dara's story explained it very clearly. During this time, along with most of the population he was separated from most of his family, made to work in the fields and fed less than a handful of rice a day and sometimes some condensed milk. Anyone educated was killed, anyone trying to get their own food was killed. Dara lost his father amongst other family members. There was no news, no radio, no TV; the only music was propaganda songs, blared out into the fields for the workers to hear. Dara was 16years old when this started. He remembers working so hard for 12 hours a day, his knees swelled up to the size of his head and he was constantly hungry. He saw his friends shot and blown up and never thought he would live through it and have the life he has now.

When the Vietnamese came to either liberate or pillage Cambodia (depends who you ask) Dara then spent about 10 years living in a refugee camp on the Thai border after the Khmer Rouge time ended, which sounded absolutely awful. Although the relative safety of the Thai camp sounded appealing, in fact before the UN sorted the camp out, it was just a huge human cess pit, with cholera, dysentery and no doubt just about every other disease you can think of. The camp was massive but to start with, had no sanitation. But compared to what the Khmer Rouge had been doing, at least the camp was better, but it was still hard work. At one point Dara said that in the camp, they said "we are humans, not pigs; pigs just eat and sleep, but we are humans" - there was nothing for people to do all day - they were surrounded by barbed wire, unable to go into Cambodia or into Thailand.

Even after this talk and reading the history again and again, it is difficult to remember all of the history as there are so many twists and turns. However, the one recurring theme is terrible human suffering. Everyone you talk to here who was old enough to remember it, will show you that it is only just under the surface, and you start to scratch the surface and it starts to come out and is still so very painful. Dara said he hopes people can forgive but they should never forget. To outsiders like us, and for the Cambodian people alike, it is still unclear as to why the Khmer Rouge did this to their own people. We have asked but no- knows; that answer died with Pol Pot in the jungle.

Employers' Workshop

VSO ran a workshop to introduce us to our new employers and explain to everyone what is expected of them. Both of our employers seem to be ok, although as you will see from the photo, Cambodian men can be very tactile and my boss is no exception! Well, at least we think they are ok, to be honest, they could have told us that they are axe murdering puppy stealers and we wouldn't have a clue as long as they smiled whilst they told us. We discovered that both of our bosses speak a little French and effectively no English. However, it really is going to be important for us to learn Khmer! The trouble is, that although French would be useful, I (Rachel) seem to have forgotten all of it! All those nights sitting in Witney with the fabulous French class, and I cant remember a thing...perhaps because the French class was a drinking club! If ONLY I had paid more attention to the subjunctive and less attention to the Guest Ale! Anyway, my boss (Mr Horn) taught French 34 years ago so maybe we are both at the same level after all!

We were supposed to fill in a 2 week induction plan at the workshop i.e. what we're we going to do for the first 2 weeks of work...I managed to get a whopping 3 whole days sorted out! It was so hard! A guy from my office who does speak a bit of English was there with Mr Horn, but because Mr Horn is so senior, other guy was reticent to speak so that basically left me getting nowhere! This whole hierarchy thing is VERY difficult - it makes me appreciate what open places I have worked in, where although there is a hierarchy, a company boss r director is accessible if you need to talk to her (or him) and your manager is approachable. But not here! I will need to ask permission before I talk to most people! OH MY GOD it will be hard work! Amongst us volunteers we suggested keeping a record of the most inappropriate cultural gaffs each month and awarding a prize...let me win, please...

Anyway, back to the employers workshop....after most of us sitting next to our employers all day, we had jaw ache from the constant smiling and headaches from nodding at incomprehensible Khmer. Piseth and Reth from the VSO office did a fabulous job of interpreting for everyone, so they must have been shattered by the end of it. Anyway, at least we all knew who we would be working with for the next two years and who we would meet on our placement weeks...

Bed Bugs

One good thing about going to PP is that I could get a mysterious rash sorted out by the doctor. She thought it was either scabies or bed bugs - it turned out to be bed bugs! Nasty horrible little things had been eating at my back and stomach without me knowing. I was covered in spots that looked like measles then when Bram started getting a few, people here suddenly thought it was contagious! But no, my dreams of getting some tropical, exotic disease to drop casually into the conversation at dinner parties were over. I had just been sleeping in a filthy bed. Never mind.

Lynda - you would have screamed at the mattress - it was VERY dirty large bit of foam...not nice, but interestingly very comfortable - apart from the additional fauna of course! Mind you, I doubt you would be too impressed with the kitchen here...I long to hear tales of you granite work top and clean kitchen - I need to buy some BLEACH!!
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