Well, today was hilarious! I did not anticipate things would end up quite like that! Then again, who would? The unexpected delights of Kratie revealed themselves against the backdrop of a glorious river sunset. Not a bad start to our explorations into the work of the CRDT, not a bad start at all!
However, I’m jumping ahead of myself. Let’s do this chronologically, or there is no hope at all of either of us working out quite how today unfolded. Basically, the organisation I’m volunteering with CWF, generates income which supports an NGO rural development project (CRDT) that is based in Kratie. As part of our induction, we get to go out and see what’s happening with these projects to help us understand more about that work. In addition, as one of the things they do is help rural communities generate additional income through tourism, we had the opportunity to go to an island homestay. Yay! We paid about $100 for this, but it covered everything, food, transport, accommodation, an absolute bargain. First though, we had to get to Kratie from Phnom Penh.
I woke 6.00ish unsure what was happening, as four of us are living independently at the same place, we were really hoping that they’d sweep by and pick us up, but no, we had to get ourselves over to the volunteer house for 7.30 a.m. This is a pain as you can’t walk any distance here because of heat, traffic and fear of having all your worldly goods snatched en route. Four of us have now been targeted. One person had everything taken, one was an abortive attempt to grab a mobile phone (the victim punched the assailant), I had a swerve by bagsnatch attempt on me, and then another one of us had her bag snatched, but it upended as they drove off, and everything fell out, so she retrieved it all, minus the bag. Not good odds though. I’m expecting to be got again at some point.) Thus, we ended up with a tuk tuk, only $2 between us, but it grieves me that you just can’t walk anywhere, it can’t be much more than a kilometre from our place to theirs.
It turned out that departure was not at 7.30, but on the plus side, breakfast was. There was a table groaning under the weight of fruit and various baked delights. Some of which are altogether more delightful than others. I had a sort of steamed bread thing with what I’m told is a bean paste filling. Not convinced. Rice dumplings things though are good. Have to be honest though, the novelty of rice is fading. I don’t like rice at the best of times, and three times a day of white rice is increasingly challenging. Oh well, I daresay it’s good for me.
At 8.30 a minibus of sorts arrived. I really didn’t think we’d all squash in, but I hadn’t taken account of our hosts optimism about our squashability potential. Thank gawd a couple of the volunteers didn’t come, we were more people than seats as it was. There was some good-humoured expressions of surprise, and some more expressions of aghastment (which I have decided is now a word). We did crush in eventually, some more concertinaed than others. On the plus side, being packed in so tightly was potentially a boon to personal safety given the absence of useable seatbelts. This way, if the minibus was to upturn at any point, we would remain wedged in place until help arrived. Like you can with whipped cream, turning the bowl upside down to check it’s stiff enough. I’m glad however they didn’t attempt to test our transporter in quite the same way. The roof appeared to be upholstered though, so potentially soft landing for our heads and crumpled bodies if the squashing us in tightly technique was not as effective as we may all have hoped.
Nevermind, it would only be for three hours. Or maybe more like seven, but these are but minor details, you are numb to it all surprisingly quickly. Maybe the oxygen depleted atmosphere contributed to our overall stupification and mute compliance? Mixed experiences en route, some were silent, some listened to headphones, some of us swapped stories, coming up with ideas of cool travel companies to work for and plotting gym and running routines. There are a couple of people who are ‘in principle’ runners – I think there is real enthusiasm for joining the Phnom Penh Hash House Harriers. I’m less keen on them as I have a feeling it’s going to be a heavy drinking Hash, but I’d like to try to if three of us go together that will be fine. I wish there was someone more at my level though (rubbish end but wanting to improve). I haven’t come out as a wannabe marathon runner, I’m too embarrassed. But I do need to access some support. Eek. STill, gym remains an option, and all is not lost yet.
Our first pit stop on route was an interesting test of people’s ability to remove themselves from a vehicle after prolonged squashing. I tried to buy water which was confusing, as my proffered note was declined. EVentually I realised it was because it was a 2000 Vietnamese dong note, not a 2000 reil one. That is worth basically nothing at all. I’m a bit peeved, because I know it was given to me as change at some point, I definitely didn’t bring any of that currency with me. Although the sum is trivial, it contributes to the sense of being a target in PP. Anyway, situation was resolved. As an added bonus, there was an opportunity to snap some fine signage, I’m fascinated by the signs out here, with their whitened, bleached out faces and unknown products. One banner sign seems to offer an herbal remedy/ pill of some sort that cures all known ills – breast cancer even? Who knows.
The journey seemed to go on and on and on. The ETA and lunch timings came and went. The next stop was at a really busy junction. As soon as our vehicle pulled up, lots of smiling sellers, with poor grasp of westerners’ ideas of appropriate personal space crowded our vehicle offering pineapples and mangos carved up and held together using cocktail sticks and presented in plastic bags, each with another little plastic bag containing a salt/chilli mix to go with them. These little salt offerings that at first seemed bizarre are really growing on me. I am sweating so much, I feel I need the salt, and salt is never on tables and not I think routinely added to food at all. Generally good practice but here I am craving salt. The tall member of our party is a great ice breaker. It’s hard on him, because he attracts attention because of his height wherever he goes, but it sure as hell helps us interact with the locals who queue up to compare themselves to him. One woman physically grabbed another and dragged her along to see this giant for herself. They liked us to take photos and then show them the digital image so they could be satisfied that he is indeed very tall. As they surveyed him eating pineapple, and putting the stray cocktail sticks in the top of one piece one intervened, removing and discarding the said sticks. She feared they’d have his eye out, as indeed they would were he to continue eating in such a reckless fashion! The cocktail stick creations look amazing, but are not entirely practical to eat. We stopped at the same place on the return journey, and most of my pineapple pictures are from that, but so sue me, the images still speak the truth. Also on hand were women selling deep-fried tarantulas and crickets, they really are ubiquitous. I’m not tempted. Periodically a truck would storm by, throwing up a cloud of red dust and debris, littering the garage forecourt. The pineapple sellers then formed a small army, frantically sweeping to keep the area clean – they may as well have tried to hold back the tide. I wondered though if that was the deal. They can set up their stalls there, but in return need to keep the whole place immaculate.
So after what felt like FOREVER, we finally arrived at Kratie! Yay! First impressions are lovely, quiet, riverside and free of the relentless traffic noise and crowds of Phnom Penh. We were welcomed into the CRDT training centre and guest house. They had been waiting for us, it was now gone 3.00 but we sat down for lunch whilst our guide for the next few days solemnly welcomed us. We had sort of chips and salad, and then rice and soup. A vegetarian option was belatedly presented. It was Le Tonle guest house and training centre, part of the CRDT not for profit social enterprise. They have a great recent photo of the team on their Facebook page, which I’ve included in my snaps below.
There was construction work going on everywhere. The guesthouse itself is being extended and improved, which meant that we couldn’t all stay there. It did look really nice though. Had a lot of character, good food choices and lovely dark wood, cool rooms with comfy areas for just hanging out, literally, with hammocks.
So then we walked the short distance to the CRDT offices where a French volunteer gave a PPT about CRDT and the work they do. We were all a bit jaded from too long in a minivan, so perhaps a bit dumbstruck. It was interesting, but depressing 40% of children malnourished, lots of figures about challenges to Cambodia – climate change is huge, there is a water shortage, and what the project aims to do. Encouragingly, but teaching people improved farming techniques yields increased despite low water levels, but the scale of the challenge is huge. I wish I could remember more detail, but unfortunately, although I requested a copy of the presentation by email it never reached me. I’m sure there is more on the CRDT website though. A project for another time is to review that properly. I came away though more impressed and encouraged than ever. This is important work, I want my labour to contribute to its success, and I really, really hope I can do my students justice.
AFter the talk, back to the guest house. Some checked in there, (bed sharing mandatory, I was tense.) The rest of us got a hotel round the corner, which wasn’t as nice, but was on the riverfront and separate beds. I was sharing with our CWF colleague, the one who met me on day one. She is very kind, and very tiny. I feel super-sized even more than usual alongside her. This is not helping my body-confidence issues!
Our local CRDT guide chatted to me a bit outside the hotel. He explained that the friendship bands he was wearing were given to him by his grandmother, one was for luck and one was love I think. I’d asked him if they were from a monk, as I’ve seen them a lot, but it seems they can be bestowed by anyone. He was great, excellent English and happy to answer questions. He told us that shortly women would start their dance and exercise classes along the front. Then he and his companion had to head off. I was with two other volunteers and we decided to have an explore over happy hour. It was stunning at the riverside.
So we did some compulsory selfies and posing. There was an awkward moment when I went to pose behind an ornamental lamppost and it almost collapsed on contact. That would account for the other toppled lamppost that is actually a handy landmark for finding our hotel. The sun was setting and the Mekong looked lovely.
We wandered along. There’s not a huge amount to see, but for me at least, it was lovely just to feel safe, and enjoy what there was. There was a restaurant in the shape of a ship with Happy Christmas decor which seemed incongruous. We are at the jumping off point of the Irrawaddy dolphins, so the restaurant was themed on that. At least let’s hope so, and we weren’t just looking at a picture based presentation of the menu. There are few enough of the dolphins left as it is. We ambled into a temple where some men were playing a kick about game with what looked like a shuttlecock on the end of a bottle. They were pretty accomplished, some deft footwork went on.
Just as we were thinking we might pause for a drink – I was really dehydrated for one, there was a black out, and everywhere was plunged into darkness. This was a boon in fact, because just along from where we were, we caught sight of an exercise class just beginning. Music was blaring out from speakers alongside a tuk tuk, bedecked with an awning proclaiming (I think) something about a Finnish Red Cross initiative. Tentatively at first, we approached, and then me and my female traveling companion joined in at the back, our chivalrous friend carrying our bags, and then later thoughtfully live streaming our progress back to our CWF compatriots through our dissident Facebook page. (We set one up for our group, before finding out that CWF have created an official one for us. Oh well, I don’t suppose the director of CWF needs to see me and other volunteers working out at Kratie. The session was hilarious. It was something of an eighties throw back, many were wearing visors, which with their white headstraps looked very much like towelling sweat bands. The routines included grape-vine esque movements and low kicks and we joined in with ever-increasing gusto. I was surprised how much of a work out it was and it was also a lot of fun. If I lived there I’d do that every night for sure. It was lovely, surreal, but lovely. Aerobics by the Mekong is not a bad way to end a day or start an adventure.
Various children milled about as their mothers worked out (it was an almost exclusively female gathering, apart from the male instructor). One little girl gamely mirrored our moves, others just darted in and out of our line up. It was all very entertaining. The music was, well, indescribable. Some English but nothing I really recognised, all very apt for bouncing along too though. After an hour or so proceeding stopped, and people queued up to push money into a perspex box. Through sign language I established it was 2000 reil, I put in a dollar, they tried to get change but it was worth a dollar to me so I said not to worry. I wanted to take a photo of the tuk tuk so I’d know what the organisation was. I managed to communicate this up to a point… except that I didn’t. I assumed the guy was stepping back because he didn’t want to be in the shot… au contraire! Nope, he was going to get the microphone. The next thing was the entire group was assembled for a team photo (nowhere near the tuk tuk with its booming amps) and much hilarity ensued. This is the single shot that best encapsulates the whole evening. Unfortunately, my designated photographer turned off my camera instead of taking a photo. Oh dear. Well, worse things happen at the seaside. I have my memories, and I’m hoping my aerobics companions will eventually offer up her own photo into the mix. It was still fun, I have my memories. What a hoot though.
STOP PRESS – UPDATE 26 FEB 2017
I have the photos – worth the wait methinks, pleasure postponed and all that. This was the start of our dancing voyage together… the olympic stadium dawn dance offs and all that followed.
We skipped back to the guesthouse excitedly, looking back at our companions longingly as we realised it was not the end, just an interlude, they were now onto more traditional Khmer dancing based routines. Next time maybe. We’d had a great mini adventure. We were not in time for happy hour, but who cares, we laughed til we cried doing the dance class thing. But I had a cocktail that looked like antifreeze for $3 all the same. It went straight to my head.
Supper was yummy spring rolls.
8.45 ish I was done in. Me and my CWF companion wandered back to the hotel. We managed to get lost trying to get back to our room, which was quite some achievement, but got there in the end. Hooray! More adventures tomorrow! So much to do and see.