Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Cambodian New Year and Travelling

Firstly sorry for the delay in writing a new blog, it has been a busy few weeks.

Secondly, thanks for all the birthday wishes 2 and a half weeks ago. It was my first birthday away from home, so was lovely to get some birthday messages. And don’t worry I still managed to sneak in a few bottles of Guinness ;-)!

Anyway we had 2 weeks holidays from work from the 8th of April for Cambodian (Khmer) New Year so I was finally able to do some travelling around Cambodia. Luckily my friend from Ireland who I was in Kenya with, Aisling Phelan, also visited Cambodia at this time, so I had a travelling buddy. We began our trip by first visiting the SCOOP school, one of the two schools of the organization I work for, SCAO. There was no school because of the holidays, but the school in located in a scenic rural area 20km north of Phnom Penh, so we were able to go for a relaxed cycle around the area and meet the extremely friendly local people. However two hours in the intense Cambodian sun meant we our Irish skins were a lot redder when we returned.

 The next morning we set off for Kampot. A small sea and riverside town based in the south-west of Cambodia. It was originally a holiday resort for the colonial French and its 19th and early 20th architecture, as well as its sleepy and relaxed atmosphere, gave it a unique charm.We explored some of the town on our first day, but there is not much to see so we decided to hire motorbikes for the next day, so that we could drive to and explore Bokor National Park which is only 8km from the town. After some initial test drives around the town, we were ready to hit the main road and the park. The park has an illustrious list of flora and fauna, but at the moment it is half a national park and half a construction site. The Cambodian government has actually sold off some of the land to a Chinese company to build a massive 5 star hotel and casino, to primarily cater for rich Asian businessmen… All within the grounds of one of its major national parks!  This is not an isolated case of the destruction of Cambodia’s beautiful and fragile environment in pursuit of corrupt dollars, many of you might of heard at the end of April the most high profile Cambodian environmental activists, Chut Wutty, was shot dead by military police (click here for more information http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/blog/2012/may/01/death-cambodian-forest-activist-chut-wutty?INTCMP=ILCNETTXT3487 ).
However the park is still impressive and once you drive the 50 odd km to the top of the mountain there are some fantastic views, accompanied with an abandoned colonial French hill top resort. It was also the scene of vicious between the Khmer Rouge and the invading Vietnamese military trying to topple the despotic regime.

After our trip to the mountain we decided to explore some of the caves the lie just outside Kampot. We didn’t know what to expect and thought we would just wander about. But as soon as we pulled up two very friendly local teenage boys offered to show us around the caves. The caves where dotted with religious iconography and many of the rock formations have formed into shapes which accurately depict animals. They said it happened naturally, but Ais and I are less sure.

The caves also acted as a safe haven for innocent people to hide during the Khmer Rouge autocracy. In fact, the grandparents of one of the boys only survived the regime because they could hide in the cave and eat whatever small animals and insects made their way into the cave. After showing us around they told us we could climb to the top where there would be splendid views of the surrounding area. They weren’t wrong about the views, but the climb was certainly a hair raising experience! They also told us about ‘secret lake’ which is a beautiful lake surround by mountains on all sides. We could have swum, but it was getting late, and driving unfamiliar and unkempt roads in Cambodia  at night isn’t the best idea.

The next day we headed off to Kep which was originally the main seaside resort in Cambodia, until Sihanoukville was built in late 1950s. The beaches definitely leave a lot to be desired, but we weren’t staying there long as we were catching a 30 minute boat to the isolated and white sanded Rabbit Island, where my friend from SCAO Alexis was staying.

Rabbit Island is definitely a great spot for rest and relaxation and just what I needed to recharge the batteries. Kep is famous for its crab so one of us definitely had to order it for lunch!!

We headed back to Kampot and meet some Irish friends of mine for a party, which went into the wee hours of the morning, as usually happens. After a couple of hours of sleep we headed off to Sihanoukville. Sihanoukville is basically Cambodia’s version of Thailand; full of western tourists and all about the beaches and partying. It was now Friday and the Khmer New celebrations were in full swing. Aisling’s friend Camilla also just arrived in Cambodia and came down to see us in S’ville, as well as Gaia, a friend of mine from Phnom Penh. So after a bit of rest on the beach we chose to check out the nightlife, which didn’t disappoint. I even got an ice bucket full of a mixture of sprits for $10… the rest is, as they say, history. After another day in S’ville it was time to leave a head back home to Phnom Penh, were I spent the next week working in a different school as a substitute teacher.

We are defiantly back into the swing of things at the moment in SCAO, with some very exciting projects in the pipeline, with everything from hairdressing training for the community, to a health fund for the school children, and increasing are usage of solar panels. We are also extremely short on volunteers at the moment so I have been back doing some teaching. So anybody looking to come to volunteer in Cambodia, now is the time J! I also bought a moto for myself so it’s a lot easier getting between the two schools and centre, as well as in and out of Phnom Penh. And it is also great fun to drive!

Sin é! 
Thanks for reading,