Alison's Adventures in Cambodia

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Over and out

I've been back in Blighty for nearly 2 weeks now, and already the previous 26 months seem like a distant dream!
I have had the most amazing time in Cambodia, and I feel very privileged to have had the opportunity to live and work in such an interesting and welcoming place. Overall it has been a fabulous experience for me, and hopefully I've done some good for the people there
It's good to be home though, and it's surprising how quickly I'm getting used to life here. I am loving being able to communicate easily again, and it's been great to come back to the British cuppa, jeans and boots, Strictly Come Dancing and the run up to Christmas.
Many things are much as I left them, which is good for me. My greatest pleasure has been in catching up with family and friends, not forgetting Cappucino the cat. I've rejoined Quintasia, my singing group, although I won't be performing with them until the new year, and I'm looking forward to dusting down my vocal tubes and singing again. I'm back to work in a slightly different role with the PCT, and - joy of joys - am now based at Bexhill Hospital which is a healthy 25 minute walk from my house. I seem to have missed a horrendous two-year NHS reorganisation, and am returning at a time when things are beginning to settle down - what great timing! Although there have been a lot of staff changes in my absence, I will be working with many great old friends as well as some lovely new ones.
I have a number of fun pre-Christmas celebrations lined up, and will be spending Christmas in the Isle of Wight with all my family.
As I am no longer "Alison in Cambodia", this will sadly be my last blog posting. I have enjoyed updating the blog over the last two years, and it will remain on the world wide web as a record of my experience. Thank you for reading it, and for all the interest and support I have received while I've been away.
Over and out!!

Myanmar Magic

The Foreign Office and popular opinion said don't go, but in spite of airline and visa difficulties our trip to Myanmar went ahead. And it was great. Myanmar is a beautiful and fascinating place, with friendly people and interesting sights. We managed to cram plenty in to our fortnight there. In the capital, Yangon, we visited the incredible Shwedagon Pagoda, which spoiled us a bit for the many thousand other pagodas in the country. In Mandalay, we explored ancient Burmese cities, and attended a comedy night with the notorious Moustache Brothers, where I sat on the same seat that the opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, had previously parked her posterior! That was the extent of our acquaintance with political events, and we saw nothing of the repression and human rights violations that have been in the news. I had my face painted with the yellow paste which Myanmar people of all ages wear to make themselves beautiful, and met some charming long-neck Karen tribespeople (what a barbaric tradition, though). I cycled round the plains of Bagan which are chock full of pagodas, and boated on Inle Lake alongside the rather odd leg rowers (apparently it saves their arms from aching). A highlight of our holiday was the hot air balloon festival at Taunggui, with fabulous animal shaped balloons in the afternoon, and balloons covered with candles at night.

Travelling around the country was difficult, with terrible roads and uncomfortable buses and trucks, but it was all worth it.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Missing the boat

I had intended to stay only one night at Tha Ton in the far north of the country. However, a crisis in the form of a cancelled flight into Myanmar next week meant that I became absorbed in looking for alternative options at the internet shop, resulting in my losing track of time and missing the daily boat down-river to Chiang Rai. Once I got over my annoyance with myself, I was very happy to stay an extra 24 hours in such a beautiful place. Apart from the fabulous scenery, Tha Ton is host to a rich diversity of different ethnic tribes. I was fortunate to be invited to join a party in a Shan village that I biked through, which was great fun.
I made it on to the boat the next day and spent a very enjoyable four hours relaxing on the river, even at the rather touristy rest stop we made where elephants are kept.


Changes in Chiang Mai

I've spent the last week in the north of Thailand, mainly based in Chiang Mai. The city has sprawled beyond my 17-year-ago recognition, and is now full of traffic and noise. However, I stayed at a very friendly guest house and had a good time, hiring a motorbike to get out to sights in the lovely surrounding countryside, including to an umbrella making village and to a wat on top of Doi Suthep hill.
There's a great weekly night market which I enjoyed visiting.
I organised a trip with two fellow travellers to Doi Inthanon, the highest mountain in Thailand, which was very cold at its peak. I had to wear all my clothes in layers to keep warm, and my leech socks had an outing again!

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Where shall I go today?

With nearly three weeks at my disposal before meeting Ken in Myanmar, I arrived in Bangkok planning to travel to China and Tibet. However, not having arranged my visa or flight in advance, I found my plans thwarted by the expense and delay in sorting things out. I therefore abandoned my Chinese plans and started pondering - where should I go instead?

Having seen most of south east Asia already, I decided that Thailand was the best option for a lone and budget conscious traveller (well I have been a volunteer for 2 years!). Some beach in-action seemed a good place to start, so I took a luxurious overnight bus and then boat to the famed paradise island of Ko Samui. Big mistake. I hit the monsoon season at its worst with constant rain and flooded roads. Although naturally a pretty place, the vast number of tattoo parlours and the low cloud did not enhance its appeal for me, so the next day I headed back to the mainland and then westwards to the unspoiled Khao Sok National Park.
In complete contrast to Ko Samui, I stayed in the deep jungle in a charmingly rustic bungalow, where I could shower under the stars, as the only guest of a friendly family who treated me as one of their own. I hired a personal guide to take me trekking in the park, which was full of my most hated creatures - leeches - hence my fetching jungle attire, including protective leech socks!
From Khao Sok, I went to Krabi, a gorgeous beach resort with my favourite limestone karst scenery everywhere. I had forgotten that this area was hit by the tsunami, and it is amazing how it has recovered since then. There are evacuation route signs everywhere in case the unthinkable should happen again. While in Krabi I hired a natty little electric step-through motorbike to see more of the beautiful province, and I also attended a great Thai cookery course. I'm looking forward to practising my new skills when I get back to England.
I've just arrived in Chiang Mai now and plan to travel round the north of the country for a week. But who knows what I'll actually end up doing - I don't think I've ever had quite such a spontaneous holiday before!

Thursday, October 25, 2007

What a difference .....a border makes

I'm in culture shock! On leaving Cambodia, I travelled by noisy, filthy bus on a hideous, potholed dirt road to get to the Thai border. I then had to struggle with four pieces of luggage (helmet, laptop, holdall and rucksack) for a kilometre through "no mans land", bizarrely passing a number of big casinos. Dirty, sweaty and exhausted I suddenly emerged into a completely different world. A new and pristine VIP bus awaited to whisk me down a sleek highway to Bangkok. The bus was spotlessly clean and had air con, fabulous reclining seats and even a trolley dolly. We stopped every 2 hours for breaks at the cleanest public toilets I'd seen for a long while. I could scarcely believe the luxury and comfort, while my fellow passengers did not seem to find it at all remarkable.

What a difference 17 years makes as well. I was last in Bangkok in 1990, and it was a very different place then. Now there are gleaming skyscrapers, elevated roadways, a metro and skytrain system, and a strong sense of prosperity from the fashionably dressed commuters. I was so excited by all the transport options that I tried out the new metro, skytrain and the fabulous ferry-bus just because I could.

There's a Dunkin' Donuts and Boots on every corner, and even Tescos has come to town. It's sad to see that some of the more charming, traditional ways of living are changing, but there's no doubt that Thailand is no longer a developing country.

Khao San Road, the famous backpackers street, no longer peddles bootleg cassettes and fake degree certificates to ragged, rucksack-toting youngsters, but is now like Ibiza on speed.

One downside to all this new wealth is long traffic jams of cars and a seeming addiction to fast food, resulting in numbers of alarmingly obese people - definitely not something I saw when I was here last.

Leaving the Thom

I've gone!! Kompong Thom is now no longer my home, and I'm not sure if I'll ever get back there again. My last week was spent packing, throwing out and giving away my things; I had accumulated an amazing amount of "stuff" over the last two years.

Two recent Barang arrivals to Kompong Thom took a lot of my big things by motorbike truck to their house.

I've been round the town saying goodbye to many friends, including the family who run the internet shop where I spent so many (often frustrating ) hours. On my last night, I gave away small possessions to the waiting staff at the Arunras restaurant, where the staff had treated me like one of the family for so long.
My friend Rachel came for the weekend to give a hand, and she helped to keep me sane with all the Cambodian beating of chests going on around me! The CoDeC staff threw a second leaving party for me, and a delegation came to my house to escort me to the bus stop on my last morning.

Now I'm left wondering if the last two years really happened!

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

My legacy

My time at CoDeC is up!! So, what have I achieved? After a very slow first year, I think I did pretty well, and my final meeting with VSO and CoDeC confirmed this. I'm leaving behind an organisation which is more professional, confident and with better team spirit than when I started. Everyone participates in staff meetings and decisions in a professional way, and some good work practices which I modelled for the staff (punctuality, wearing a crash helmet, greeting/saying goodbye to colleagues when they arrive/leave the office) have been noted and are now the way things are done.

The old Executive Director, a good man, retired a month ago, leaving an opportunity for a new appointee to move CoDeC further forward and for the existing staff to take on more responsibility and to develop their skills. It would have been great if I could have stayed on a bit longer to help them through this management transition, but never mind.

Thanks to my efforts, CoDeC was successful in securing a range of project work during the last two years, to the benefit of the poor rural communities it serves. The office is a more comfortable and efficient place, with fans, chairs, desks, notice boards and now a clock and a picture which my parents and I gave as leaving gifts.
I'm sure I will be remembered most, though, for the five new networked computers and a seminar building which we plan to build on the CoDeC site, funded from money which I arranged through the German Embassy. The photo shows Savann signing the contract with the builder, with a picture of the building on the whiteboard behind. We don't bother with architect drawings here!

My VSO replacement will not be arriving until March next year, but I think that he or she will have a very rewarding time working at CoDeC. I am very sad to leave my CoDeC family, but hope to stay in touch in the future.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Vacation in Vietnam

Yet another Cambodian national holiday last week gave me the opportunity to have a break in north Vietnam with a VSO friend. We started in hectic Hanoi, overrun by motorbikes but nonetheless full of charm and character. We joined the locals for a spot of early morning tai-chi by the central lake – a fine start to the day.
We then travelled on the overnight train to Sapa near to the Chinese border, to trek through stunning scenery. Many colourful ethnic hill-tribe people live in the area, and we were able to visit their homes, find out about their ways of life and watch the women sewing and embroidering all day – they always have a needle in their hand. Our vivacious trek guide, a member of the Hmong tribe, had a superb command of colloquial English learned from tourists; she named me “Diamond Geezer”!
We also hired motorbikes for a day to explore on our own.
We moved on to picture-perfect Halong Bay, where we stayed on a luxurious junk. As well as visiting caves and watching the gorgeous panorama as we went by, we also swam in the bay. The Bay was swarming with tour boats, but this didn’t spoil our time there. All in all, a great trip.