Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Term II break

 My gosh, it is the end of the second term which means that I have been here in Siem Reap for over six months, it is not possible.

The 12 weeks of school term 2 went ever so fast, the group of people here were a lot of fun and we always seemed to be doing something, eating, sightseeing or just playing cards.   There is now  only one other teacher left from the original 7 and she is out in the village and I only see her on Sundays.

Ernie left on Friday morning the 18th so that he would be in home in time for Sandra’s 60th then it was time to say goodbye to Ryllis which was very hard as we had been neighbours and done a lot of travelling together.  Ryllis will always have a special place in my heart as I watched her grow in confidence each time she went into the classroom, she became a mentor for the new teachers.  A much more confident Ryllis will be returning to Tasmania.   Judy left without saying goodbye and Amanda, Leonie and Annette were remaining a few more days.  It was hard to say goodbye because, firstly because we have had a lot of fun together and secondly,  it is an end of an era as all of the teachers arriving in the next few days will be completely new.  Lis and I are the only ones left of the original six Aussie teachers.
The term break is two weeks so I decided that I would venture out by myself over the 2 weeks break, well perhaps not the full two weeks.  Anyway, I decided to make the trip to see the fresh water dolphins and to visit the hill tribes.  This entailed a 1,000 Km trip, leaving from Siem Reap by bus on Sunday morning the 20th. 
The bus was, of course was crowded as  usual, except this time I was certainly the only Westerner as I didn’t have a friend to travel with.  We travelled from 7am until 2pm with of course the numerous stops, picking up and dropping off and a quick lunch break.  We arrived in Kampon Chann and I had to transfer to a mini bus to continue the trip to Kratie.   It is difficult to even try to describe the mini busses and how many people are jammed into them.  I think during my travels the most was 18 people including 2 children, luggage, 3 x 10 kg bags of rice, numerous bags of vegetables and a tray of baby chickens.  I guess you get what you pay for.
The trip took a further hour and we eventually arrived in Kratie which is on the Mekong River and of course welcomed by the normal crowd of driver who can take to the best, cheapest guest house.  I had arranged to be picked up by the guest house owner who was an Aussie but he wasn’t there and after 10 minutes I decided to walk to the accommodation which turned out to be about 5 minutes walk away.
The accommodation was clean and $7 per night and right on the River and as it was 5pm and I hadn’t eaten all day it was definitely time for a beer and something to eat.   Right over the road was the night markets and I got my beer and watched the beautiful sunset and started talking to the lady who owned the stall, with the help of a Tuk Tuk driver who was also eating there.  The conversation came around to ‘what are you doing tomorrow’ and I said that I wanted to see the dolphins and the lady said that she would love to come too so it was agreed, 8.30 the next morning.
It was lovely, Sophea has lived 30 minutes drive on a motorbike from the dolphins all her life but had never seen them, she was really excited, she had told a lot of people so there was a group of locals waiting to see us off.  I was really excited about seeing the dolphins as Ryllis and I had spoken about going but opted for the beach instead.  The dolphins live in a certain part of the Mekong and live  and die in the one area.  We arrived at the river and transferred to one of the open boats and waited, and waited and then we were surrounded with the dolphins.  They are smaller than the sea dolphins and do not jump as high but just as great to look at.  We were lucky enough to see them over the next hour many times although they were too quick to get a photo of.  I have lots of pictures of the water and a ripple.  The dolphins are so close to the shore that you really didn’t need a boat but of course by doing so another person receives money from the tourist.  We stayed about an hour and got back into the Tuk Tuk and then travelled up the road about another few minutes and visited a small island which has been joined to the mainland by metres and metres of bamboo walkways which have been extended into the river to make a huge open dining area which is used to hold wedding receptions and is crowded with about 3000 people over the Khmer New Year.
On the way back the Tuk Tuk driver called into his home and invited us to meet his wife and new baby.  Sophea was exhausted but had a great time, she had to be back and set up by 1pm where she works until midnight every night.  Her husband is a policeman who earns $65 per month which of course explains why they are open to bribes as it is the only way they can survive.
 I spent the rest of the day wandering the streets and looking at the river etc and of course eating and drinking.  I spent some time talking to the Aussie who manages the guest house I was staying in and talking to the locals.  I was wandering around the back streets when young Cambodian lass called me and asked me if I would like to come into her house and speak English to her so that she could practice English which of course I said that I would.  I had to climb up into the house via an almost vertical ladder and sit on the floor, we spoke for about 2 minutes and she then tells me that a Khmer dictionary costs $3 and would I like to buy her one.  I was really disappointed that all she really wanted was money.  Oh well!!

Seeing the Mekong again made me very determined to try and do the trip from the top to the bottom of the river. 

After spending 3 days in Kratie I then moved on to Stung Treng which was probably not the place to stay for more than one night, I managed two but then booked a mini-taxi to Ban Lun in Rattankiri Province.  Stung Treng is also on the Mekong and other than a number of waterfalls and being used as a base to visit the dolphins who leave near the Laos border and being the first large town from the Laos border it really doesn’t have a lot more going for it.

The next morning I left on an overcrowded mini taxi.  You might ask why do I keep using the mini taxis when I keep moaning about them.  Well, there is a bus service but it only come in, in the afternoon and is always running about 1 hour late so you have to sit around and wait for it, mini taxis at leave the first stop on time and then the service becomes depended on the greed of the driver.  On this trip, we had two French tourists, a monk and another 13 Cambodians and of course all of their luggage.  The monk really enjoyed the trip as he had a captive audience on whom he could practice his English.  He had trouble with the French tourists as he couldn’t understand their English and they couldn’t understand him. 
We have a number of monks as students in our school and they are always interesting, they spend most of their time studying everything.  Women are not allowed to touch them and this gives the teachers a challenge at the school, especially in the crowded classrooms.  Ryllis had us all in fits of laughter the other day during her last day when they were playing games, the Monk sat out the blind man bluff game but took part in the next one during which he slipped over, Ryllis instinctively put out her hands to catch him, realised who it was took her hands away and he dropped to the floor, he at the same time realised what was happening and tried to stop and all ended up in a big mess on the floor.  The Monk on the taxi got my attention by poking me with his mobile phones.
Talking about mobile phones, everyone has at least one, most have two.  They never stop ringing and talking.  The young lad who sat next to me on one of the trips only stopped talking to sleep.  The mini taxi drivers have three phones and it is interesting to watch him talk on all three at the same time while driving.   
Ban Lun in Rattankiri Province is where I really wanted to go but it certainly was nothing like I expected.  This was supposed to be hill country like Sapa in Vietnam. 
Wrong!  I must admit there were hills but they had been almost completely denuded and covered by baby rubber trees or cashew nut trees.  I would hate to think what will happen during the next wet as all the soil will be washed down the hills.

There were fires burning everywhere and I was told that it was the local way of farming, burning off the foliage to let new growth through.  I thought I was back home during our ‘burn off’ period.  I have come to the conclusion that a member of the NT Bush Fire Council has retired in Cambodia and kept up lighting fires to keep in practice.  The air was constantly filled with smoke.

The area around Ban Lun is very dry and dusty and everything is covered in red dust, just like Central Australia (the dust I mean).  It gets into every part of your body and just sticks there.  Not a very nice place.   I wiped myself after my shower and the white towel had become a rusty red colour.  Once again I was taken around to see the waterfalls which would be fantastic is there was water but it was at the end of the dry.  My trip  around the waterfalls was great as my guide took me on the back of his motorbike.  You can certainly see the sights and smell the smells.

On the second day in Ban Lun, I travelled about 2 hours inland to a river and then went on a small boat for a further hour up the river to visit one of the tribal villages.  I really enjoyed the trip, the village was very similar to many I have seen but it was very isolated and they spoke their own language with only a few of the older people speaking Khmer.  The ladies were only dressed in skirts and everything was very basic.  The guide was a typical Cambodian who thought that the village people were just one step above animals.

They bury their dead not far from the villiage and we went to see the burial ground and some of the burial huts were very old and in disrepair but a lot of them were new.  They draw pictures or include carvings of items that accompany the dead on their journey and it was interesting to see pictures of mobile  phones and motor bikes on the new ones.

I also went to see gem mining and could have bought some lovely gem stones but only bought an uncut stone to give to a friend of mine who works with rocks.  I would think that OH&S does not exist in the mines.  Well they are really not mines they are just a hole in the ground less than 1 metre in diameter which goes straight down for about 3 metres and then they start widening out.  No supports or anything.  The skinny miner goes down the hole, digs the dirt putting it in a bucket which is then pulled up and the dirt dipped out.  It was unbelievably hot on the surface; I would hate to think how hot it was underground.  I guess the lucky ones make money and the others just survive with their families.

I stayed at a wonderful hotel; it is situated right on top of a high hill, so the view is spectacular.  It was opened in September so everything was new.  The cabins were must made of wood and allowed the breeze flow through.  The generator went off at 10pm and no hot water but the staff were friendly and as I was the only guest I was certainly well looked after.  I practiced my Khmer and they learnt some new Australian expressions.  I can just imagine the look on the next guest face when they are told ‘to get up at sparrow’s fart’.

I did not fancy trying to work out when and where to change busses to go direct to Siem Reap so decided to go to Phnom Pehn from there which I was told would be a 5 hour trip meaning that I would get to Phnom Pehn by about 2pm.  I decided that I would splash out and book in to an expensive hotel which had a swimming pool, so I could lounge around for the day before going back to the school.  You guessed it, I did not get into town until almost 6pm (express mini taxi) we stopped to pick up contraband wood and of course the unofficial passengers. 

I had roast chicken for my evening meal.  This might not sound all that exciting to you but for someone who has not had a roast dinner since leaving Australia, it was fantastic.  I scraped my plate cleane.

The next day and i caught a lovely clean, roomy, expensive ($10)  express taxi back to Siem Reap.  What bliss to be able to spread out.  I was the only westerner (Barang) on the bus but at least most of the Cambodians spoke English.

It was great to get home except that Lis had been staying in my room while I was away to give her a break from Village life and she hadn’t moved back. 
I had been away over 7 days and still had another 7 days left.  I went and stayed with Lyn at her villa until the meeting on Sunday.
The new teachers had already moved in and were quite settled in when I came back to the school.  I will tell you more about Lyn’s school and the new teachers in the next instalment.