An amazing account of team Yaso’s summer expedition to Cambodia, recounting the daily activities and projects, along with some great insight into everyday Camps life…
Saturday, 16 July
Terminal 2 departure hall waiting for our flight. Everything running smoothly so far.
Sunday, 17 July
Arrived safely after a smooth but very long journey to a very warm greeting and a very hot climate. We arrived at camp mid afternoon Sunday and have learned all about the work we will be undertaking this next week. Awoken at midnight to a beautiful cacophony of crickets, cicadas and frogs. Unbelievable thunderstorm too, utterly ferocious but at least it’s cooler now. We were all dead to the world by 8 o’clock, shattered by the journey. The scenery here is full of fresh lime greens, the growth brought on by the afternoon rains. Everyone well and adjusting slowly to the heat and humidity.
Monday, 18 July
Our first morning working. Up at six with the light. Projects were a reading room and a rubbish recycling station, digging foundations and filling with stone. Rubbish is a big problem in some areas due probably to poor education and a lack of clear organisation and leadership. We start at 8.00 and finish by 11.00 when it becomes unbearably hot. We must be drinking easily 4 to 6 litres a day due to the high humidity. This afternoon we had a blessing at the local Buddhist temple and then walked on to see a remarkable old temple created around the time of Angkor Wat. The rains came down as they do every afternoon and we walked through ruins a thousand years old. We shopped in the local village buying cotton trousers and SIM cards, then trudged back through the rain welcoming the fresh cooler air. Dinner is noodles and rice, the cooking is great.
Tuesday, 19 July
Woken at 4.30am by the local Buddhist temple, it’s a sacred day and so the chanting and music have kept us going, only a stones throw from our camp-come-village and the school where we work. The skies are clear today, the colours vivid and the sunshine intense. We have carried on hammering, sawing, digging and carting gravel and stone. It is very hot work but we are all learning toad apt, drink lots and take turns in the shade. The team are amazing, not a moan or whimper from anyone despite the conditions. We sleep in Bandas, longthatched wooden houses on stilts with a mattress and mosquito net, and overhead fans to help. This is still a community living without electricity albeit that which Is generated for a few hours each evening. This lunchtime ice was delivered in large blocks by motor bike and trailer, and in the evening you can follow fireflies dancing through the dark. We have state of the art compost toilets flushed by rice husks and we mix concrete for construction by hand, much as they always have. I reckon with brick laying expertise gained we could put a new block up in months. At lunch we learnt some Khmer which is the spoken language. Amazingly it hasn’t rained today.
Wednesday 20 July
9.00 am. A litre drunk already and two loads of concrete mixed and laid. The other half of the group are brick laying, and being quite creative with it, intentional or not. In fact, their wall resembles a gentle swell on Plymouth Sound. Last night we had a bonfire because the rain didn’t come and we learnt to dance Khmer style by the light of a full moon. Needless to say we ended up playing assorted music from iPods from a loud speaker accompanied in chorus by frogs and cicadas. I think some of the group may be going through detox as they reminisce at lunch about pizza and donuts. We are not far from one the main roads north east from Siem Reap but traffic is strangely light, probably no more than a bus or truck every few minutes and otherwise small motor bikes, bicycles and a strange looking vehicle hard to describe. Farmers have given up cows to pull trailers and now have a motor powering two wheels which can be controlled using a 2 or 3 metre set of handle bars while you sit on the trailer! It’s been a long day as we settle down to supper and we have a pub quiz to look forward to.
Friday 22 July
Feeling much better today. While the fit werebrick laying the rest of us were lying in hammocks or sleeping. It’s been an interesting learning curve for some but everyone is learning to be supportive and accommodating, and all are showing remarkable resilience. Awaiting us over the next few days are some forestry work, permaculture and English teaching. Our days are fairly uniform, dawn breaks at 5.00, we breakfast at 6.00 and are off at about 7.00am. We work from about 8.00 till 11.00 then return for lunch at 12. At 2.30 we are off again until 5.00pm with supper at 6.30pm. It’s dark at 7.00pm and we are usually in bed by 10.00pm!
Saturday 23 July
Campmates are in a positive attitude, did some forestry work this morning. Getting on really well with the campers from other schools, overall great time. I forgot to mention we had a large ceremony at the local school. They flew some local dignitaries in by helicopter from Siem Reap (it’s only an hour by road, but a few generations in terms of development) and thanked every one of us for our work on the school, gifting each with a coconut and watermelon, symbolic offerings from this land. About 80% of the population still live in the countryside. With very little organised infrastructure due to recent well documented history, communications have been transformed by the mobile phone. The younger generation with access to a new world will probably have different aspirations.
Sunday 24 July
Rest day, chillin.
Monday 25 July
English teaching this morning under a dark sky, it’s rained a little and is thankfully cool. Camps International run the classroom near to the large government school where we have been building. Half of the group are spending the morning with the students, talking to them, drawing pictures and helping out. They range from 8 to 14 although all of them look younger than their ages. This afternoon we swap round and meanwhile everyone is preparing for the 4-day trek which starts tomorrow.
Tuesday 26 July
Trek day! Started under cloudy skies and set off through paddy fields towards a large raised sandstone plateau. About 500m high it rises up very quickly so walking is steep and tricky because the trail is never straightforward and technical in laces. Before the climbing we walked through a range of country, a mixture of natural forest and the occasional area deforested for bananas or corn. We get to the top in 4 and a half hours and have drunk about 3 litres. Out camp is in a clearing near the bluff and we sleep in two rows of hammocks in an open faced Banda. In the evening we sit by a fire and learn how to make sticky rice pudding in bamboo.
Wednesday 27 July
The day started well with a happy birthday song to Max on the big rock watching the sunrise. You can see for miles from our vantage point right next to the camp. We set off at 8.00am and walked through villages untouched by progress for hundreds of years and watched a local man climb a two-hundred-year old Palm (extremely high) to get coconuts down. We went to the ancient site of a historic city and set off through the jungle to camp. One of the trails was blocked so our guide/park ranger took a detour which was quite an adventure. We arrived tired and weary about 4 at our new camp which is a Buddhist Monastery. We have tents set up inside a meditation centre so I step out to Buddha, candles and meditating visitors. Pretty unique. Supper at six then meditation class.
Thursday 28 July
Boom, the temple drum reverberated through the temple at 5.30 this morning followed by dogs howling as of the world was ending. Quite an alarm clock. Breakfast of fried egg on toast and a cup of tea, then off we go. Our journey today starts with some bat caves about 3 miles away, but it is another hot day. Fortunately, the forest gives us shade. We first visit an ancient life size elephant sculpture carved complete from the local sandstone and then climb up to the sandstone caves. We split into two groups and watch or listen to the bats and there is even a small shrine underground where people go to pray. We walked ten miles today and our camp is finally reached in a small village next to a river. There is a waterfall downstream and the team have one of the best hours of the trip playing in the water at its base. We have tents to sleep in tonight set on raised platforms. Luxury.
Friday 29 July
Up with the lark again and after egg on toast, we pottered up to the reclining Buddha. This area is heavily forested being a national park and very beautiful as a result. We then walked several miles along one of the forest trails, stopping to see the sacred carvings on sandstone that lie beneath the surface of the local river. In the 800s the then King damned the river and the carvings were created. You can still see them today beneath the shallow water. We descended eventually down hundreds of steps from the plateau upon which the park rests to a waiting bus and then on to Siem Reap for our 3-night tourist break in a lovely hotel!! Tonight we are eating out at a restaurant popularised by none other than Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. Well. It sounds good. Pizza for me then. More news and pics to follow because we have the sacred Wifi signal.
Saturday 30 July
An r and r day!! Lunch at a homemade pizza restaurant then on to see the silk farm, crocodile farm, and the floating market. The evening meal was in a huge hall with a giant buffet, foods from a range of local cultures (a challenge for some!) and we were entertained by beautiful dancers in traditional costumes dancing dances from 1000 years ago. The ancient local temples have libraries in which are inscribed stones detailing life at that time and on the temple walls are intricate carvings showing dancers and their movements. Whilst in town it is good for all of us to be living in relative comfort with air conditioning (!). Siem Reap is really very enjoyable and a crazy fusion of west meets east. There is even a Costa Coffee. I think visiting figures to this town and the temples are over ten million people a year which means a huge boost to the immediate local economy. However, this does not necessarily trickle out to the surrounding villages and countryside.
Sunday 31 July
4 am start and on the road 40 minutes later to grab tickets and get to Angkor Wat for sunrise. This remarkable area around which are many other temple sites was once a large city of over a million people around 1000 years ago. Using dams and canals the Khmer people were able to control their water supply and also their food, because in this climate and latitude you can grow crops all year round. Archaeologists believe it may ultimately have failed due to changing weather patterns and consequent drought. We returned for breakfast then were out again to visit two very different sites. Sandstone from which everything has been built was carried from the local hills (in which we were trekking) for 50k either by boat or overland using animals such as the elephant. We had a Cambodian lunch out and get returned for a kip before dinner out at 6.30. Them on to the circus which was different and brilliant. It is funded by an organisation or charity that is focused on giving opportunity to children from very poor backgrounds, often orphaned due to the complex and dark recent history that this country has. Being creative and learning skills that may lead to employment, such as art, music and performance was illustrated through the energy and originality of the show. It tells the story from the killing fields until now through dance, minor, gymnastics and circus tricks! Bed by ten and a lie in before our journey south.!
Monday 1st August
3-hour drive and a very remote location so phone signal weak. Lovely camp, more spacious and better facilities. Hotter though. Project news tomorrow. This afternoon the highlight was a Buddhist water blessing where we ended up drenched! All well and excited to be in a new camp with nicer amenities e.g. toilets we can sit on and that flush albeit with a bucket of water. Lots of water too from artesian wells so showers are encouraged. Generator has just come on. Darkness arrives and with it the mosquitoes!
Tuesday 2nd August
Up at six and ready to leave at 7.45. Last night we suffered bug infestation. Thousands of small flying beetles that lay thick on the ground, under lighting and in the showers and toilets. Not pleasant.
Projects today; Weeding a large area next to the football pitch and filling some raised flower beds with soil for planting. This afternoon some of us are teaching English, over 55 students of mixed ages and ability crammed into one small classroom.
The local school was built only ten years ago when the government built a dirt road into the area. The indigenous people here speak another language and were originally hunter gatherers in the forests, most of which are now gone. The language is spoken but not written. 70 percent of Cambodia has suffered deforestation and it continues apace. Not all children come to school, but they need to learn Khmer (Cambodian) and English.
Lunch at 12 noon and supper at 6.30. The generator is only on for four hours a night from 6 till ten.
Wednesday 3rd August
Lots of rain last night. Wonderful because it swept away the beetles and left the air clean and cooler. Of course the next day it then feels a little more humid and we have sweated buckets digging holes for local toilets. The idea is to build a toilet with septic tank for each dwelling or group of dwellings to improve hygiene. We first dig two holes about 2 metres apart. Each needs to be 1m wide and 1.5m deep. We then use precast concrete sections of pipe a metre in diameter and half a metre long. One of the other groups has been making these. Three of these are stacked on top of each other to form a tank, the first of which collects solids and the second through a connecting pipe provides the soak away for water. Voila. Simple but effective, and of course many of us in rural areas still use septic tanks today. Group morale is very good and everyone seems to be in better health which makes a big difference. Breakfast was noodles and vegetables with egg and toast, lunch, rice and chips and meat and veg. Dinner I am sure will be similar, but most of us are adapting to the change in diet.
Thursday 04th August
A week tomorrow left till we fly out. Not that any of us are counting the days but a month can be a long time. Today we continued with the toilets and are working on foundations for the shed or building which will house the toilet. We laid the concrete last night so today, once water was collected at a local pump, we mixed mortar and laid three layers of bricks. Whether they are still standing or not in the morning will be interesting, we dashed back just as the rains came in again. A small group also went again to help with teaching this afternoon.
Friday 5th August
Rachel’s birthday today. We all sang happy birthday at breakfast and this evening surprised her with a lovely cake. Not sure where it came from but it was pretty impressive considering where we are. It vanished fairly quickly, the nicest thing I’ve eaten yet said someone. It started raining again at 5.30 and it’s very welcome after another day above 30 in the shade with very high humidity. We had only to work half the day so spent the morning finishing off our brick wall. Six layers in the level was brought out, this being a long clear plastic tube with open ends full of water. Once we had some level lines out we could see immediately how much more we still had to learn about brick work. Fortunately, the bricks we use can be cut down to size so we were able to create a fairly level seventh layer and make a sloping wall flat! This afternoon most of us slept, read or washed clothes and later some walked to a small pond which gradually grows during the wet season to form a large lake contained by a mud dam. Tomorrow we are planting some trees.
Saturday 6th August
An interesting night. A boy from another group was bitten by a centipede on his way to the toilets during the night. He stood on it. It was about six inches Iong by 1 inch wide. He was fine but had a painful foot for a few hours. There aren’t many but you have to keep your eyes open! This morning we walked about 3 miles out into the bush to plant some trees. The government own the forests and they have given permission for Camps International to redevelop an area that is simply grass and scrub. We are planting hardwood trees that will mature slowly, and rekindle the forest on this small patch of land. I think we all benefitted from the walk. We dug holes and back filled them with dead leaves and some local weeds to provide mulch and nitrogen for the sandy soil. The trees were then planted in the soil from the hole. They are very small saplings but seem to be thriving judging by others that are there. The rainy season will help and in addition a large hole has been dug to collect water for use in irrigation during the dry season when temperatures reach 40 degrees plus. This afternoon we are working on toilets again! In fact, we have just finished the basic structure. Another group has arrived so the camp is busy again. Queues for the showers.
Sunday 7th August
No rain last night but the bugs came again and most of us retreated beneath our mosquito nets. Only 27 this morning at 5.30 which feels quite cool now but the air feels heavy so It might rain later. A new project today creating the concrete pipe sections that are used for the septic tanks. We spilt into four groups. One task was making the concrete. 4 sand, 6 stone, 1 bag cement. Then we had to release previous casts from their iron molds. Oil the molds, put together again and wait for concrete. Meanwhile another group were cutting and shaping some iron rod to form circles to reinforce the sections. Similarly, we also cut some vertical rods. Lunch at 12 was chicken and chips with Pak Choi for veg with watermelon afterwards. Back after siesta. The local people have no electricity or running water. There are however a few deep wells with hand pumps. In camp we use the same source but have a generator powered pump. Their main diet consists of potatoes, not like ours, a local type of potato and black spiders for protein. Some have chickens but there is no rice grown near here. Every few hours a motor bike will tootle past on the earthen road blaring music like the ice cream vans of old and selling all sorts including iced drinks. The local houses are in good shape, built high on stilts from with forest timber, with solid roofs, some even tiled. Income comes from the forests and each day people head off to bring out wood for sale.
Tuesday 9th August
A rest day today although some of us have volunteered to spend the morning finishing off one of the toilet structures. A few of us started at 5.30 with a quick jog and the thermometer was at 26 so it seemed cooler. This afternoon another group went for a walk in the local village to take pictures and see some of the furniture that is made. Later we had a group photo with one of the families we have been building for. This evening we had a big farewell bonfire despite some heavy rain and gave some signed t shirts to our 2 Cambodian students who have been with us since the first day. They have been a brilliant addition to the group and have helped us all throughout the trip translating for us and also teaching us some rudiments of Khmer. They were both selected from their schools in Siem Reap at a primary age to go to, as I understand it, an international school funded by charity. Their education here is superb and way beyond what the average child in rural Cambodia would get. Part of their programme is to take part in voluntary work during their holidays and thus return something to their communities, hence their time with us. We will miss them.
Wednesday 10th August
Leaving camp! On our way to Phnom Penh. We negotiated the first 5 miles slowly in an old truck because it was impassable by bus and then changed to a proper coach once Tarmac was reached. The roads are all in very good condition here and there was a very nice stretch of fairly empty dual carriageway. Infrastructure investment like this has come from the Chinese, Japanese and other neighbours and Cambodia exports many goods from factories along this route to these markets and beyond. After a brief stop to hold tarantulas and see them piled high with locusts and beetles for sale to eat we reached the big city. Sky scrapers and small shop chaos, like many other cities the world over. We are out at six to the night market and then on for pizzas and pasta. Tomorrow it’s going to very moving as we visit the killing fields and learn all about Cambodia’s brutal history.
Thursday 11th August
S21 and killing fields. We spent the morning in the former, once a school but converted by the Khmer Rouge regime to be a brutal concentration camp. It was a graphic tour aided by narration at way marked points throughout. It is estimated, because many records were destroyed when the regime of Pol Pot fell in 1979, that up to 20000 innocent Cambodians (as well as other nationalities who were caught up in this chaos at the wrong time) are thought to have passed through this camp (one of many across the country) which focused on horrific deprivation and torture to acquire confessions, all of course completely fictional. They were then taken in secret to places now known as killing fields and executed blind folded. This process was all about cleansing the population and whole families would be killed to prevent revenge. We listened to tragic stories and saw graphic images and even met 2 survivors. This afternoon we visited the killing field outside Phnom Penh where thousands died brutally and were thrown in mass graves. Today there is a poignant memorial with skulls, clothes and bones, and the pits used for burial are clear to see, some still untouched. There was a film and guided narration around the site. It is estimated that around 3 million people were killed during this regime between 1975 and 1979. We did also have a lovely lunch and also managed half an hour in the Russian market. Tonight more shopping and a Cambodian dinner.
Friday 12th August
Our final day. We are visiting the royal palace and surrounding temples and stupas. Extraordinary architecture and colour. This has been a journey full of contrasts. Last night we visited a new shopping Centre, built with Japanese funding, a truly remarkable shopping experience with a collection of high end global brand names and eclectic boutiques mixed with restaurants and snack bars serving foods to cater for anyone.