It’s one way to feel alive for sure. I think the actual advice is ‘do something out of your comfort zone every day’, it’s a sort of staple for building confidence and getting over culture shock in unfamiliar contexts. I don’t think it’s intended that you should literally put yourself in the way of life threatening situations on a daily basis, but clearly you should do whatever works for you. I do quite a lot of things that scare me every day – walking to work through Phnom Penh traffic has never become comfortable. Occasionally I have a day when I think maybe I have become desensitized to what is going on around me, and then you’ll see someone have a terrifying near miss, or witness the aftermath of an accident or hear that a volunteer got hit by a car the other day or whatever and the terror returns. Mostly though I think its like ‘flooding’ (a discredited way to treat phobias) through constant exposure to the thing you fear, you become sort of numb to it, not happy, but your brain learns to put that stimulus into the edge of consciousness. It feels precarious though, panic could yet burst out at any moment for me anyway. This is despite the fact that given what passes for driving on the roads it’s actually pretty amazing I have seen so few accidents. A previous volunteer saw a young man killed a couple of years ago, he said people were just stepping over his body and some took photos of the deceased young man as they did so. It’s so matter-of-fact. Anyway, the scary thing I did today was nothing like that at all, it’s just I like a good tangent as a lead in to a story.
The scary thing I did today was to cross a bridge when I came to it:
It was way scarier than it looks. But I felt the fear and I did it anyway, with a little help from my friends. It was a good day.
So today, was Saturday. I’m somewhat shamed to admit, I have got into a bit of a rut here in Phnom Penh. It’s astonishing how quickly you can get into a routine in the most unfamiliar of places. I’m trying to cut back on spending, I’ve ‘done’ most of the tourist things, and I’ve got a bit lazy about seeking out new adventures. So, all in all, it was really good that today CWF and Teuk Saat 1001 had arranged an outing for them of us as wanted to take advantage of it. The plan was to head over to a primary school in Kandal Province (that’s the one that surrounds Phnom Penh) to see a water treatment plant in action, and take in some R&R over lunch before seeing a local (to there) wat and heading back to the city. It was a brilliant day out. Such a relief to leave the confines of this city and, as always, punctuated by a myriad of mini adventures. So CWF seem to have now broken their link with CRDT, and are now supporting Teuk Saat 1001 with the profits from the school instead. (It’s actually a bit more complicated and controversial than that, but that summary will suffice for now).
So some of us rocked up at the school for the 7.50 a.m. rendezvous. Mostly independent volunteers and some local staff. We piled into the waiting minibus. It was one of those ones with a padded roof, that may be ornamental, or may be a wildly optimistic attempt to provide protective cushioning in the event that the vehicle rolled. This would have been fine, were it not for the fact that someone commented it was somewhat reminiscent of the interior of a hearse. This led me to go to some lengths to retrieve the thoroughly tucked away and concealed seat belt ( a feat I have never previously accomplished successfully on any form of transport in Cambodia, but it just shows what you can do when you really, really want to). Anyway, then I had to fret about the fact that the possible – nay almost inevitable consequence of this would be that in the even of a major RTA, I might be the only person sufficiently unscathed by the incident to remain conscious. It would then be beholden on me to deal with the messy aftermath. Oh gawd! No action is without consequences. I was tempted to rip off the belt and position myself in the fright seat instead. (I’ve always thought I’d rush to the epicentre of a nuclear explosion as who’d want to be amongst the survivors then and end up watching each other die as miscellaneous body parts fall off and bodily fluids ooze out. Nope, not me). I couldn’t have the fright seat though, as this was already occupied by the volunteer recovering from his recent involuntary encounter with a speeding Toyota Hilux. According to the Toyota website ‘The Toyota Hilux is uncompromising and unbreakable‘, unfortunately, volunteer teachers are not.
So off we went. We had almost a seat each on this sojourn, so that was good. It is always fun watching the street scenes unfold as you go along in Phnom Penh. It was extraordinary to see what is within a couple of kilometres from the school, that I have never explored. Markets, motos, the world going by. I couldn’t really tell you where we were, but the BIG surprise for me was how abruptly the city ended. At a particular point the high rises just stopped. Suddenly. We moved from high rises, and sphere topped towers to dusty wasteland. A cow was ambling around, and there was a sort of shanty town, the other side of what seemed to be a bridge, but might have been just an invisible boundary known only to the city planners (if there is such a thing here, which seems doubtful frankly). One things for sure though is that my brain sort of imploded at the transition, it was so marked, maybe that’s why I had such a splitting headache by the end of the day.
Alas, my camera has officially died, otherwise I’d have taken some snaps along the way. I did outsource my photographic duties to fellow travelers, but they obviously weren’t going to be taking pictures of all the things I might choose to capture en route. Hence we do not have a shot of the extraordinary, booming, banging hammer that was being used to pound massive concrete pillars into the ground as part of bridge construction. Nor the pig, squashed into a basket on the back of a moto, contorted horribly, and pouring blood from its anus, I really hope it was dead. The cattle, so skinny that the phrase ‘skin hanging off bones’ was made for them. It isn’t ‘good’ to see these things, it is often shocking, but it is how it is. It feels like Cambodia. Or at least a version of Cambodia, there are many nuances I am still entirely unaware of I’m sure.
After some bumping about, and chit-chat – which is turning increasingly to ‘what next’ once the teaching semester ends, we ground to a halt. I find this hard, I feel very inadequate as I am just as clueless as when I came, more so really, as at least before I came I had a plan for the next three months. Others have plans to teach in India, travel onward, business deals in Cambodia, Laos – all sorts. Oh well, it’s not a competition. Eventually, we left the city behind us, and moved into dusty, lower density populations, and agricultural regions. We had a few false turns and finally spilled out of the van at a local water treatment plant, funded by Teuk Saat 1001, and which supplies free drinking water to the local primary school.
I’d not really thought all this through. We were a bit jaded from being squashed in the hot bus, and so we traipsed along, past a clinic and into the grounds of a primary school.
The school is a beneficiary of the water. It was way bigger than I imagined, and classes were in full flow. The school architecture is now familiar to me, shoes piled outside classrooms, low-rise buildings with grills over the windows. One innovation was a concrete slide. There were loads of bicycles, a sort of tuck shop affair, where an elderly toothless woman stood waiting for non-existent customers. The sun beat down on us, but the interior of the buildings was cool.
The bit I hadn’t really thought through, was that our CWF minder, just randomly invited us to enter one of the classrooms. It was excruciating. We stood blinking at the children, and the children blinked back at us. It felt inappropriate. I think if they’d maybe explained that we were teachers and helped with their water it might have made more sense. They were also insistent that we didn’t need to take off our shoes – although clearly local children and teachers did. It was all awkward. It was also interesting though. Seeing the children in their smart uniforms, and rigid classrooms. At the front of each class was a lurid green water bottle. There is one for each class each day (which doesn’t seem a great deal quite frankly). The school seemed reasonably well-equipped and not that remote. It is hard to think that just three years ago there was no clean water here. I do find it hard to get my head around all this. We were encouraged to take a photo, and indeed to join the children at their desks for publicity photos too (which I’ve not seen yet, but might add in later if I do). Weirdly, being sat with the kids was way better, as it felt like they were excited by their proximity to we weird strangers, whereas when we stood at the front, it felt like we were gawping at them quite frankly. I feel much more comfortable as gawpee rather than gawper.
So after more self-conscious hanging around, we wandered back to the water treatment plant which was a couple of hundred yards away from the school. This bit I found really interesting. The water plant is really pretty small, and low tech, but extremely effective. Water is pumped up from the ground, and goes through a series of filtration process – sand and charcoal I think. Then there was a UV stage to kill off, I think, bacteria. I naively thought when this was first described it would be using actual sunlight, but of course that would be unpredictable, instead it was a light in a tube, and multiple cylinders with various additional processing. It did inspire confidence. The bottles are cleaned with a chlorine solution I think, but the water itself is not. It tastes great. The 20 litre containers sell for 1500 reil (4000 reil to the dollar).
The water is put into containers at the end of the process. I was particularly taken with how they used a kettle of boiling water to pour on the cellophane seals, this then shrinks them into place creating a clean and secure seal. Genius. They have two distribution vehicles which serve the local community around for about 3 km in all directions (I think, but that bit is hazy). It was a very efficient sort of process.
So that was all pretty interesting, and I felt OK about that. We took the opportunity for a pit stop, which involved walking past some sad-looking cattle tethered. A calf was caught in its rope. It was spooked by our presence so I didn’t think it appropriate to approach and assist myself. I tried to alert someone, but nobody cared. It’s not like people are necessarily actively cruel to animals here, it’s more like their suffering is invisible. You do see dogs with open sores, or mange everywhere, cattle with bones projecting out, live chickens suspended upside down from the back of motos, it’s pretty grim. You don’t see people ‘deliberately’ torturing animals by kicking them or dousing in acid or whatever. However, from the perspective of the animal the outcome is much the same. It’s not good. Back in the bus, as we were off for lunch.
The lunch stop was fab! When we pulled up, at first it seemed the place was abandoned, or at least closed. However, you walk down a path, through some planted up veg crop areas, pass a pond thick with green algae to a series of little stilted shelters, each with a few hammocks hanging inside, and a matt in the centre. We quickly appropriated the space, kicking off our shoes and checking out the lounging options. Some cattle were tethered and grazing in the field beyond. They were in much better condition than any others we’d seen en route for the most part. As we lounged, women brought rice, weird-looking soft drinks (that I wasn’t brave enough to try – diabetes feels imminent with soooooooooooooo much sugar in all drinks here) but was brave enough to ask someone to photograph on my behalf. I was nicely settled in a hammock, but requested to relocate as the vegetarians were required to dine together. I’m not sure why, as the vegetarian option was basically no meat, but no substitute either. However, it was nice to have plain rice, beans and morning glory cooked with garlic. First ‘proper’ veg fix in far too long. Apparently, it is just $2 per person to dine here in this way. It reminds me that if only I could have found a way to get local friends and properly integrated you can live cheaply in Cambodia, and well, this alas, has so far eluded me however.
I’d have liked a few more ambient shots of the surrounds. There was a very fine grasshopper as we finally left though.
So after a while, we made a move. Time to head to the wat. What wat I really don’t know, I do know that we all piled into the bus, and went about 100 yards up the road, a distance we really could have walked! It is laughable this expectation that we can’t walk anywhere at all. One day I will try to remember to count how many approaches I get from tuk tuk or moto drivers on my short walk to school. Problem is it takes all my concentration to just get to school safely. Oh well, project for the last week maybe.
The wat was a bit different from others. It is not old (in shells on the ground was a date 1992 in one part) but it is hard to age these buildings as they are weather worn and the combination of that and the ancient looking architecture can be deceptive. What struck us first was the prayer flags which I’ve not seen much elsewhere, other than when we did the stop off from the Mekong River trip to a remote riverside school there. Beautiful, but slightly puzzling.
The temple also had a lot, and I mean a lot, of statues around depicting, well I’m not altogether sure what. Buddha’s early life is one guess, but what that man is doing behind the anatomically detailed horse I have no idea. The starving people – is that a stark warning of what might lie ahead for those who don’t follow the tenets of Buddhism, or is it a plea to give alms to the poor, or just a depiction of old age and the suffering of people? I have zero comprehension.
The most eye-popping of the statues though, was the vultures devouring the dead! Graphic certainly. I did wonder about whether to share the image with my students, this would be the ideal example of a context-specific usage of the word ‘eyeball’. See how everything is connected!
So I think we can legitimately say that this representation is ‘bizarre’ to my western eyes, though actually, an sky burial (is that what it’s called) does have a certain appeal. Though not the job where you are the person who cuts up the cadaver to aid speedy consumption by the circling vultures. I’m sure I’ve seen a documentary about that sometime, somewhere, but can’t recall where.
Anyway, we then continued our wander into the further reaches of the temple. There were some stunning views, and curious architecture. I liked the hidden elephant especially.
Amongst the general jungliness, was a sort of hidden raised temple. It was its own island, reachable only by a relatively narrow bridge, that traversed high above some water of unidentifiable depths. I can’t really explain why it was so scary to be faced with the bridge. The destination looked appealing, but the walkway wasn’t one that looked oft used. I stepped out fine at first, but instinct is a powerful thing. My rational mind told me it would be fine, but my instinct was screaming at me to stop. Vertigo gripped me and blood rushed around inside my head. I have a feeling it was something about the fact the bridge wasn’t quite straight. This meant that although it was in fact stable under foot, it looks like it’s veering off and ‘broken’ because of the jagged route. I was not brave enough to go first, but fear of missing out took me across when someone else had made it first. This is what the bridge and tower looked like – that’s me over the other side!
And this is what I looked like triumphant! Simple pleasures eh? You can’t actually tell in the photo, but I’m at the mid-point in the bridge.
It is good to do scary things, afterwards you have a brief moment of feeling invincible. Unfortunately though I’m not. Oh well.
I came back across to the main bank with relative ease. I think our CWF minder was most relieved that we all did so. She was getting nervous what with hefty volunteers hoiking themselves up internal ladders that swung off the interior wall of the tower. Scary enough that it led upward in the dark, way scarier that it had a huge cavernous drop beneath. I didn’t feel a need to further proof myself with that. Some colleagues weightier than me did successfully make the ascent, but attested to the fact it was definitely very scary. I was not sure that the fact the ladder held for them meant it necessarily would for me. I may not be heavier than them all, but I am way heavier than a straw, even if I have missed breakfast, and that’s all it took to break the camel’s back as we all know!
One other pleasing sight of many, was the little shrine, resplendent with a Buddha figure, and gold embellishments. It had its own hidey-hole, which it seems doubled as a handy store in which to keep cleaning equipment. You’ve got to love such a versatile space for sure.
There were also some pretty cool monk living space signifiers. I do like a drying robe to create atmosphere in a shot.
I still don’t know about temple visiting etiquette though, not really. I am repeatedly told ‘it’s fine’ to go into Wats (as long as you cover your shoulders and conduct yourself with basic common sense, non pointing feet at Buddha that kind of thing – oh, and don’t wear black) but it still sometimes feels intrusive, it is after all a living and working space for monks (well pagoda’s are) and a place of, if not exactly worship, contemplation for others. I suppose it’s like churches in the UK. They are ubiquitous, and sure anyone can go in, just be mindful of where you tread…
Summary, today was a good day. There is life outside Phnom Penh, the water project is good, the temple was super-cool and I was brave. Unexpectedly so. I can (sometimes) do scary things. Hooray! Had a humdinger of a headache when I got home though. Oh dear.