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Saturday, February 25, 2006


Cambodia 2006: week 1

Tuesday February 21: not much happening

I had planned to move on to Kompong Chhnang today. But I spent an hour in the internet cafe (1,500 reils per hour). It has no air conditioning and the space he gave me was at the back with no fans and almost no air circulation. When I returned to my room I was completely lacking in energy and had no motivation to start packing so I rested instead. Later in the afternoon I was stupid enough to go back for another hour and a half session. Just gotta get those flickr pictures up there for you.

One good thing is that I am becoming more familiar with the neighbourhood around the guesthouse. I quite like it and if I decided to stay in Phnom Penh for a while would be happy to stay here.

Wednesday February 22: off to KC

Today I got my act together and managed to catch the 11 am bus to Kompong Chhnang. It was a smallish bus and I was the last one to get a seat. It was air conditioned and on the drivers panel I noticed the temperature read-out showed it was hovering around 30—obviously a few degrees cooler than outside.

As we reached the outskirts of Phnom Penh we passed many of another kind of bus with another kind of air conditioning. This one comprised a box trailer, maybe six metres long, wooden planks were strapped at intervals across the top of the trailer. Passengers sat on the planks with their feet inside the trailer, no roof, just completely open. The whole lot was pulled by a motorcycle. Many of these were being used as school buses.

As we were entering KC, I saw the sign for Holiday Guesthouse and rang the bell. The driver was patient as I gathered my three bags and got off. I was greeted by Sophor (not sure if I have this quite right) who used to teach Khmer to Aussie volunteers and others on behalf of UNTAC which administered the country during the transition to a new government after the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge.

Sophor showed me the only two rooms he had available. Compared to the ones I had at Sokha Guesthouse last year, both are quite small. But this guy was bending over backwards to make me welcome. 'I really need somewhere to hang my clothes...I really need a desk...Doesn't this window have screens? I'll never be able to open it in the mosquito season...Do you have a cloth I can put on this table?...The light is not very bright.' No sooner have I asked and he comes up with a solution. Maybe not exactly the solution I had in mind but this is Cambodia. I can't really expect to have everything just the way it is in Oz. And there is a restaurant attached...And he's going to loan me a bicycle. I reach a point of feeling I shouldn't ask for anything else. I mean, this room is only costing $5 a day!

So perhaps I've found my home in Kompong Chhnang. It's a little further out of town than I was last year and on the other side of town from Wat Xam. But the bicycle will make that irrelevant. And there are two beds in the room, so if any rellies or friends want to come visiting...

Sophor likes to talk and he has interesting things to talk about. I feel I'll never be lonely while I'm staying here. And he gives free Khmer lessons.

Later in the afternoon I took a walk into town to pick up a few things and to visit Wat Xam. As I walk towards town many people smile and lots say 'hello'. I go to the market and buy a few things. Unlike Phnom Penh I feel no need to haggle over prices. Every price I am quoted seems so reasonable, why would I bother? And the smiles and stares...an ET would not have got any more attention. Everyone who looks at me, I smile back and say 'hello'. It is just so incredibly easy to make friends in this town.

I head out towards Wat Xam. I don't make it. Someone calls my name. 'John! Remember me?'

'Mr La. Of course I remember you. I'm on my way to Wat Xam.'

He is so pleased to see me. He had expected me a few months back and had been wondering what had happened. He explains that the teaching monks are in Battambang and he invites me to another school where he is teaching tonight. I am given a class of six students. The class basically consists of them asking me questions. They have never spoken to a native English speaker before. All the questions come from just two students as they are really quite shy. And of course, when they ask what I do, I am expected to tell a story. We have an absolutely wonderful time together and they ask if I can return tomorrow. I'm not sure what I'm doing tomorrow but I feel sure I'm going to enjoy it. That's the class in the photo. Their usual teacher is at the back.

Thursday February 23

Some clarifications are needed on what I wrote yesterday. First the owner of the Holiday Guesthouse is Sophal, pronounced So-Paul but the 'l' is so short it almost isn't there. I've thought more about the cost of staying here. Cambodia is not the cheapest place to stay in Asia. This room is costing me $A200 a month. At Siri Apartments in Mahasarakham I was paying much less. The room was 2—3 times bigger, air conditioned, had a decent built-in wardrobe and desk and had hot water. At Sama Sama in Melaka I paid a similar amount to the rent here. The room was much bigger but it did not have its own bathroom nor did it have glass in the windows. Still the charm of the place made up for any shortcomings.

After lunch La dropped by to take me around. We rode our bicycles down a dirt road to a village a little closer to the Tonle Sap River. This area is flooded in the rainy season so the houses are built on stilts. We visited a wat (temple) where I met another of my friends from last year, a monk who has now disrobed but even so is in this wat teaching English to young monks and others. I am there to give them the opportunity to listen to a native speaker.

Later we head to Wat Xam where I spent a few evenings last year. I spend some time chatting with the monks until the students arrive. The abbot enquires about me and offers me a room at the wat. I already knew this was a possibility and had decided it was not what I wanted. He also offers to teach me Vipassana at some time. Some of the monks also ask if I will become a monk. Once again, while I have considered this possibility, for the moment I have decided it is not what I want to do. Maybe I am still attached to my freedom. Whatever, I am not ready to let go of it just yet. I choose to live simply but I prefer to make my own choices about how I do this.

When the students arrive I am moved from class to class. They practise asking questions and listen to the answers from probably the first native English speaker they have encountered. After an hour with these students La takes me to another village that I visited last year where he teaches English under one of the houses. A similar process follows. I ride back to the guesthouse in the dark, have my dinner and sleep very well.

Friday February 24: settling in nicely

I spent most of the day in my room preparing pictures for uploading to flickr when I go to Phnom Penh tomorrow. The pictures are still behind the blog as I have not reached Kompong Chhnang yet.

I arrive at Wat Xam at 5 pm and give a class until six. After class a few of us ride our bicycles down to the river and back. Nothing exciting. Just a pleasant evening.

Life here is even more different to Australia than anywhere else I've been but the people are lovely. So far everything is working out fine. I am very happy here.

If you send me an email and need an urgent reply, please put 'URGENT' in the subject line. Then I will probably read it while I am online. However if I have 100 emails to open I will probably leave most of them until I am back in KC and can take my time. Therefore your answer won't be sent until the following weekend.

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