The Call of the Gecko

At eight a.m. I walked out of the apartment where I am staying into a sudden blast of hot air, smoke and the strong smell of frying pork. It is rush hour. I manage to hail a local tuk tuk driver and ask him to take me to the children’s hospital. He looks at me blankly. I fumble around in my bag to find the scrap of paper with the hospital logo printed on it. Meanwhile the sounds of construction pound around me making my head throb. Everywhere I look new buildings are shooting up and there is no rest from the noise, the dust, and the shouts of the builders. They work all week from 7 in the morning until 6 at night.

The local builders smile and salute me
There is no weekend breaks. Dust flies into my eyes and I feel myself becoming irritated with myself for not being more organised with my travel arrangements. I didn’t sleep well the night before. The temperature in my room all night had been 34c and the humidly was about 80%. The only air conditioning I had was a ceiling fan which is not very efficient. To top it all a gecko (lizard) kept waking me up with its call. The people here are very superstitious about geckos. Old people believe that having a gecko inside the house is lucky. They believe that geckos are relations that have died and been reborn to look after their children but if you hear a gecko cry four times in a row it means something bad will happen in the family, possibly death. Listen to the gecko cry here. Annoying isn’t it 🙂
I’m feeling exhausted and the day has barely begun. I feel a headache looming and realise I have no painkillers on me plus I have forgotten my umbrella. I couldn’t be more disorganised if I tried. It is the rainy season and the last thing I need is to be caught out yet again. I have already been caught in two downpours. I never learn.
‘You want Provincial hospital,’ the tuk tuk driver asks.
‘No, I want the children’s hospital,’ I say finally finding the scrap of paper I need which I thrust towards him.
Several other tuk tuk drivers are now descending on me having realised that my driver has no idea where I want to go.
‘Ah, yes. I take you,’ he says on seeing the paper.
I resist the impulse to scratch the mosquito bites that are now irritating me like mad. I am also perspiring profusely and it has only been fifteen minutes since my shower. I feel hot and the insect repellent makes me feel sticky. Dengue fever is rife in Cambodia at the moment and I am constantly advised to cover myself in repellent although I have been bitten so many times that I am beginning to think it is a total waste of time and money. If I don’t go home with dengue fever it will be nothing short of a miracle. But no matter how many bites I have or how hot it becomes there is something about Cambodia that draws me back like a magnet and I know before I even leave that I will return as soon as I can. My tuk tuk driver weaves his way in and out of the morning traffic. Cyclists cut across us and motorbikes carrying whole families shoot past us. The pungent smell of cooking spices assault me and my head seems to throb more.

‘Can we stop at a pharmacy,’ I shout above the traffic noise.
‘Yes, Mam, we do that.’
At the pharmacy I try to explain that I have a headache and need something for the tension in my neck. It is like walking into a Doctor’s dispensary. Whatever you need they have. I am offered high dose codeine for my pain. I refuse, attempting to explain I want something to ease the muscle pain. She offers me Valium and then a stronger dose of Codeine. At least I know which pharmacy to come to if I want to get high later. Again I refuse and I spot some tiger balm and attempt to explain that I want something similar to this to put on my neck. She finally gives me several cool patches to place on my neck. I ask for aspirin and end up with Advil. Still it is better than nothing. I buy a face cleanser and rush back to my tuk tuk driver. It seems in Cambodia any drug is available if you don’t mind taking the risk. I’m not sure the Advil will work but I take it anyway.
We arrive at the hospital and I am stunned to see hundreds of families with crying babies already queuing at the entrance. They stare hopefully at me as I alight from my tuk tuk and walk through the gates. Many of the children are clasping stale pieces of bread or suckling at their mother’s breasts. The security guard tells me they have been there since six am. I follow the guard to the admin office feeling hundreds of eyes on me. We pass a makeshift ward, a play area which has quickly been transformed. Mattresses cover the floor and men and women lay quietly on them. These patients have been moved to make space for a dengue Fever ward. The rainy season has caused a large outbreak of the fever and already Cambodia has reported 4,434 dengue fever cases in the first five months of this year. From January to May 2012, the disease killed 21 children. In adults the fever is uncomfortable but not fatal but in young children, especially those already malnourished the fever can be fatal.
The admin lady tells me she will take me to the CB offices. I have no idea what CB is.
I am struggling to control my annoyance at the organisation of these people. I have been here almost ten days and still they have not decided what is it they want me to do. It is now considered that CBHEP (Capacity Building and Health Education Program) has greater need of me. As time goes on I am beginning to understand that organisation is not the Cambodian people’s best quality. At least it is lovely and cool here though and I am grateful for that.
In the offices of CBHEP an Italian volunteer bombards me with information that I feel my head spin even more.
‘Do not worry if everything seems confusing, there is plenty of time,’ he tells me. ‘In the meantime can you please work on our nutritional programme and update another document on CB?’
I fight back the urge to tell him that in fact there isn’t plenty of time and that ten days have already been wasted. Although I did manage a wonderful trip to Battembang, so their loss was my gain. Instead I return his grin and allow myself to be given another visit of the hospital and assure them the work will be done that afternoon. I leave and walk to The Peace Café which is becoming my favourite place to rest. They offer cooking lessons in Khmer and I begin to wonder if I have time to do this. I check my dollars while drinking my peanut butter yum yum. I cannot recommend this café enough. If you ever visit Siem Reap be sure to look them up. They also hold yoga and meditation classes. The temptation to attend one of these has been overwhelming but there is so much to do here that it is impossible to fit everything in. Do visit here for a drink I can assure you that you will not regret it.
With my friend Sochenda at the peace cafe

Annoyingly I find that one twenty-dollar bill has a small tear in it. Here in Cambodia no shop or restaurant will accept a note with even a small rip in it. I now have to hope that I can maybe get the guy at the local supermarket to take it. So far he has been very good with me and has offered to change a few torn ones for me. But I’m aware there is a limit to how often I can ask.
My local supermarket. Two mins from the apartment

I have managed to form a good relationship now with a tuk tuk driver who works outside the apartment where I am staying with my stepson. I call him from my Cambodian mobile and ask if he can take me to a second-hand bookshop and then onto Mekong quilts. Someone had recommended the quilt shop to me when I was in Battembang and I decide I will visit there first and then go home to work on the documents. I’m thrilled I did. What a fabulous place.
The quilts

My daughter in law phones and tells me she has booked me into the hairdressers for the next day. I am to have my hair straightened. I have always wanted this done in England but it was always far too expensive. The excitement of finally having some work to do coupled with the anticipation of visiting Mekong quilts and having my hair done, quickly wakes me up. In irritation I had felt with the hospital staff quickly passes.
There is no doubt about it. I love this country called Cambodia.

Links.
The Peace Cafe
Mekong Quilts
Angkor hospital for children

A humbling experience

The highlight of my trip to Siem Reap in Cambodia was the chance to visit Pesai, the little girl I sponsored shortly after my first visit here. I only vaguely remembered her from my last trip. My decision to sponsor her came from seeing her photo and reading her background information. My decision to sponsor from this orphanage, The children’s Sanctuary, came from my contact with Dr Andrew Clift and his wife Dawn Cornish. An Australian couple who are doing marvellous work in Cambodia. You can read more about them in a previous post. There are many orphanages in Cambodia but one needs to be very careful. If you wish to visit an orphanage when visiting the country do check it out as much as possible first. The Cambodian people are lovely but there are many dishonest people here too who would gladly take your money.
I never imagined I would be nervous at meeting Pesai again but nervous I was.
Before leaving for Cambodia I had spent many weekends shopping for presents to take to the Children’s Sanctuary with me. With a suitcase full of stickers and colouring books as well as pencils and spinning tops off I went. I had also bought dresses for Pesai as well as a bag and a doll. These were to be her special gifts from me and I was very excited to give them to her.
When the day came to visit I phoned my friend Sochenda who works there. Sochenda and I had become good friends since my last visit. I knew I would never find my own way there and the tuk tuk driver seemed to have no idea. I handed him the phone and Sochenda gave directions. Soon after negotiating a price we were on our way to the Sanctuary. Here is a picture of Sochenda I had been disturbed by the news of the hand foot and mouth outbreak which had already claimed the lives of many children and of course there was also the threat of Dengue fever. I was thrilled I was still allowed to visit. As my tuk tuk pulled up the children ran to greet me. They knew I had gifts. At the front was Pesai who was smiling widely at me. The children were so excited by my bags that I had to give them their gifts immediately. Pesai’s face lit up on seeing the doll and she held it close for the rest of the afternoon.

Pesai on the right and you can just see her doll
The staff were keen for her to have photos taken with me and she seemed just as pleased to have them taken too, even putting her arms around me.
It is very humbling to do something so simple to help someone else. Pesai has no family. Although all the children will go to school the sanctuary depends heavily on donations and sponsorship. Dawn is happy to discuss sponsorship with anyone and you don’t have to donate a fortune either.
It was an exciting visit for one of the other children was having a birthday party so I joined in the fun and celebrations.
Most of the children in the Sanctuary are well but there are some that aren’t. Like one boy I met who has HIV and is deaf and mute. I took many photos of him as it made him happy to see them through my camera. He laughed a lot.
My happiest moments in Cambodia have been spent at the Sanctuary. I hope through my photos you can enjoy the visit too.

For more information on The Children’s Sanctuary go here and you can like their Facebook page. If you would like to help please contact Dawn Cornish through their web page or contact me by leaving a comment and I will email you back.

Funerals, Bamboo trains and flooded tuk tuks

I’m preparing for the drive back to Siem Reap today, which will take about three hours. I am very much hoping the heavy downpours will hold off until after I arrive back. Travelling anywhere in Cambodia is difficult enough but it becomes much worse when trying to drive through endless floods. It is incredibly hot with the humidity at 85% but this is not unusual in the rainy season I didn’t sleep well last night even though I am staying at the wonderful Battambang resort. I’ve not really slept well since arriving. I miss my husband and Bendy and there is so much to think about that it makes sleep difficult. As I type I can hear the sounds of funeral music. I know it is funeral music for my tuk tuk guide Dang, pointed this out to me during my trip to the bamboo train. He explained how the sound makes him feel a little frightened.
‘It can last from three days to sometimes longer and wakes you up in the mornings,’ he told me.
I found the sounds beautifully haunting and you can hear them for yourself here.
I don’t know how far away this particular funeral is that I can hear now. It sounds close but then the music always sounds near when it is in fact very far away.
I shall be sad to leave Battambang. I have had an interesting if not catastrophic visit but then it would not be typical of me if there wasn’t some catastrophes involved. My most reason catastrophe involved a bamboo train. My aim had been to visit the countryside while here. Battambang is the capital city of Battambang province in northwestern Cambodia.
Founded in the 11th century by the Khmer Empire, Battambang is well-known for being the leading rice-producing province of the country. The city is situated by the Sangkae River, a tranquil, small body of water that winds its way through Battambang Province providing its nice picturesque setting. I spent some time researching it online and read that a visit to the countryside was something not to be missed. I asked at reception and a tuk tuk driver was arranged. He arrived ten minutes early and introduced himself as Dang and spoke English with a Cambodian/North England accent. I asked him if he had been to England. He looked surprised.
‘No, but I learnt at school and from British people who come here.’
I guessed he must have spent a long time with a Northerner. I smiled and complimented him on his English.

Dang

‘I’d like to go into the country,’ I tell him.
He looks thoughtful.
‘Ah, country. You go on bamboo train?’
I had looked at the bamboo train online and thought it looked interesting if just a touch uncomfortable. I turn to the owner of the resort and ask if she can explain that I want to go into the countryside to take pictures. She understands and a long chat in Khmer ensues. Finally she says.
‘We think Bamboo train is good way to see country.’
I’ve been bamboozled. The bamboo train it is then.
‘Come on Lynda,’ smiles Dang.
So I head off for yet another experience. Although as yet I had no idea just how much of an experience it was going to be.
The Cambodian people are the friendliest I have ever met. The children call out to you as you pass by in your tuk tuk and the adults always smile at you. Most tuk tuk drivers are exceptionally helpful and friendly and many are great tour guides. Dang turned out to be one of those. He points out the river explaining that this time last year it was totally flooded.
‘Very bad,’ he smiles. ‘Now I take you to Bamboo train’

So, off I go to the train. Obviously I am expecting a train. Something similar to the train I may board back home in Oxford. How silly am I?
We arrive at the station after driving down very bumpy roads.
‘Very bumpy,’ I say. I am so innocent. I have no idea that the bumpy roads are nothing compared to the bumpy ride of the bamboo train.
Dang just smiles.
I look around for my train.
‘The train not here yet?’ I ask.
He points to what looks like a water raft.
‘Here bamboo train,’ he says gaily and another man throws a large cushion onto it for me. Oh, good heavens, they can’t possibly expect me to go on that. But, oh yes they do.
My bamboo train

Dang explains that the journey will last one hour. I try to visualise myself sitting on this train for one hour but it just doesn’t happen.
‘I come with you?’ Dang asks.
This seems a good idea. I climb onto the train, take a deep breath and off we go. I shall never complain a tuk tuk ride is bumpy again. At one point my handbag jumped up several inches and almost left the train but for Dangs quick reflexes. As I cling onto my bag and camera Dang gives me some background on the bamboo train.
The bamboo train is one of the world’s all-time classic rail journeys. The train clicks and clacks along warped, misaligned rails and bridges left by the French.
Each bamboo train – known in Khmer as a norry (nori) – consists of a 3m-long wood frame, covered lengthwise with slats made of ultra-light bamboo, that rests on two barbell-like bogies, the aft one connected by fan belts to a 6HP gasoline engine. Pile on 10 or 15 people or up to three tonnes of rice, crank it up and you can cruise along at about 15km/h to 20km. What to do when two trains going opposite directions meet. In the case of bamboo trains, the answer is simple: one car is quickly disassembled and set on the ground beside the tracks so the other can pass. The rule is that whichever car has fewer passengers has to cede priority.
I would dismally remember this on my return as a monsoon raged about us.
Once I became adjusted to the train I actually found my ride quite exhilarating. Thirty minutes later we stop at a village and climb off. It is here that I hear very loud, haunting music and ask Dang where it is coming from.
‘It is a funeral,’ he tells me and shakes his head. ‘I do not like it.’
I find the music deeply moving and he attempts to translate the words for me. We walk amongst the villagers who bombard me with gifts made from reeds. One ties a home made bracelet to my wrist.
The track




I look uncertainly up at the sky as dark clouds float dangerously towards us.
‘Do you think it will rain?’ I ask Dang.
He however does not profess to be the weather man.
‘I don’t think so but I don’t know.’ he answers.
At that moment the wind comes up so suddenly that we are almost thrown off out feet. The men in charge of my train indicate we should begin making our way back. I am relieved. I wait patiently but nervously as they prepare my train.



I am now keenly aware that I am a solo traveller and that any oncoming train will expect me to disembark, have my train removed from the rails and allow them to pass. This is fine and I am very happy to do this except as we begin our journey back the winds grow stronger and the rain begins to pelt down on me. This really could only happen to me. I quickly pull my cardigan off and try to decide which I should protect the most, myself or my camera. Dang looks at me apologetically and I smile although I feel far from happy. The wind is so fierce that I have to duck constantly to stop the overhanging branches whipping me in the face. And then horror of horrors, I see an oncoming train. I want to cry. Dang nudges me softly.
‘We need to get off train.’
The words I had dreading hearing. My slacks are now stuck to my legs and any hope I had of maintaining some kind of decorum is gone in a flash when I see my cotton top is stuck to me also. I look like an entrant for a wet t-shirt competition. Not quite how one should present oneself while in Cambodia. Within minutes my cardigan is drenched and so is my camera. I slide off the bamboo train feeling quite miserable but not as miserable as poor Dang who looks quite guilty.
‘I’m sorry Lynda,’ he says offering to hold the sopping wet camera.
We wave happily to the Chinese people who pass us on their train and climb back onto ours to continue the wet journey back.
A downpour in Cambodia

The arrival back at the station (which isn’t a station as such, more a muddy area full of motorbikes) produces such a sense of relief that I almost cry until I see how muddy it is. Visions of myself slipping and sliding to the tuk tuk torment me. I mean, why me?
Luckily Dang helps me and I make it to safety.
The station

At last, I think. We can go back to the hotel. I can dry off and have some dinner. Except… Dang’s tuk tuk is soaked and he can’t get it to start. Oh, no. I shall be stranded here forever. Okay, a bit extreme but I feel highly embarrassed dripping away in front of all these Cambodian men. They obviously take pity on me for several of them attempt to start the tuk tuk. Until finally amidst a cloud of grey smoke, it starts. I let out a long sigh and climb in.
I’m all for adventures but this is taking things too far.

Nothing goes as planned

I’m finally back in Cambodia but how long I will stay is very much unknown. Nothing in Cambodia ever goes according to plan.
The heat and smells assault your senses with such ferocity on arrival in Siem Reap (Cambodia) that it leaves you feeling quite heady.
Well, I have a headache so that’s my excuse 🙂
The combined heat and noise is quite a shock to my system after my quiet sojourning in the Cotswold countryside. Of course nothing goes according to plan in my life as most people who know me will testify.
I’m here in Siem Reap to write for the Angkor hospital for children. As of yet I have no idea what I am to be writing. In fact I am writing this in the offices of the hospital as I wait for the director of Human Resources to come and meet with me to tell me what is expected of me…
But as always I jump ahead of myself. Let’s go back to Heathrow airport, as boring as it may sound it is where my journey began.
My lovely husband Andrew took me to the airport and immediately began our problems. The lady at the desk at Singapore airlines said I couldn’t possibly fly back on the date my ticket was booked for because I would not be able to stay in Cambodia for that long. I was told in no uncertain terms that I must either change my return date or extend my visa for longer than thirty days. I was not happy to do either. I attempted to explain that I did not want to extend my visa too early. After all I had no clear idea how any of this was going to work out for me. I wasn’t keen to spend thirty pound on an extension visa that I may not use. After much discussion I changed my flight, settling for an overnight stop in Singapore on the way back. Not ideal but I didn’t want to be discussing it for the duration of the morning and it was better than extending my visa so early in my trip.
I am now glad I did for the director of human resources is now telling me that nobody had advised her that I was coming and that she needs to meet with her boss to find out what they had in mind for me to do. I am coming to understand this is very common in Asia.
I leave the cool interior of the hospital for the blinding heat of outside. Next stop to buy a fan.
I never remembered it being this hot when we were here in December but I’m being told the rainy season is when it is at its most humid. I have certainly come during the rainy season, but more of that later.
I phone Andrew and hearing his voice makes me miss him even more. ‘Make the most of your trip’ he tells me. So that is what I have been doing and will write more about it as I go on.
In the meantime here are some photos. Please leave comments as I love to hear your views.

Shopping with my daughter in law

The market

My new friend Sochenda
The hotel owner’s jeep here in Battambang, where I am staying for a few days. I got a lift into town in it to see the circus.


Coming soon. My visit to see the little girl Pesai that I sponsor in the orphanage.
Pesai and her friend. Pesai is on the right as you look at the photo.

A Cambodian catastrophe


So, it is now official that I do not save my catastrophes for home only. I also manage quite easily to have them in Cambodia too. It is typical of my luck that the loo in my en-suite bedroom got blocked. My stepson and his wife forgot to tell me to be economical with the loo roll. Those closest to me know that loo roll is my one extravagance in life (as if.) We have a problem and no plunger. I suggest asking the landlord. Down we trot only to find he has gone out. I cannot face the thought of a blocked loo all night. Travelling between bedroom and loo is where I get most of my exercise! I suggest asking at the restaurant opposite.
‘They must have to plunge a fair bit,’ I say ‘seeing as they rent out rooms too.’
James agrees but feels less inclined to walk into a restaurant and ask for a plunger. After all he does have to continue living here. However, I don’t speak Khmer. But I agree to have a go. After all I did block the toilet. I walk confidently across and into the restaurant full of dining tourists. Of course, it is at this point I very much want to walk back. How do I explain a blocked toilet in front of all these people who are happily eating? I lean across the bar in the manner of a conspirator. The waitress leans forward expectantly.
‘We have a blocked toilet,’ I whisper.
‘Oh,’ she says.
‘Do you have a plunger?’ I ask while miming the actions of plunging and not very well at that.
I can’t imagine how I look.
‘Oh yes,’ she says and rushes away to return a few minutes later with a large plunger which she diplomatically hands to me behind the counter. I feel like I’m doing a drugs deal.
I walk head held high from the bar swinging the plunger in my hand.
James thrilled that I have obtained one, agrees to do the plunging, except the plunger seems too small. Why am I not surprised? This is me this is happening to after all.
‘It doesn’t seem to have great suction. It’s too small,’ says James.
Too small? Good lord how big does it need to be?
It is then decided, by me. Who else would make such suggestions? That I should hold it over the hole and maybe this will help. James seems unconvinced but searches out some rubber gloves for me. So we try again. It looks rather like we are about to perform an operation and with James being a nurse it all seems quite apt. Still no luck but I spur James on to keep trying as a blocked loo in this heat is too unbearable to even think about. Finally, there is a loud spluttering sound and we are cleared.
I walk across the road to return the plunger to find the restaurant now has more people dining. I look around for someone to hand the plunger to but they are all busy serving. The waitress sees me and smiles. She wanders back behind the bar and holds her hand out. Cringing with embarrassment I hand the plunger across the counter, carefully avoiding the Cointreau bottle.
‘Thanks so much,’ I whisper and hurry back across the road.
Why do I feel this is one of many catastrophes I will have?