Cambodia Part One

I arrived after a hot and sleepless night in Bangkok, where, jet-lagged and dizzy, I lay in the hotel room cooling my forehead with drinks from the fridge.
After collecting my visa and bag at the airport, I headed outside where I was greeted by Neville, the director of the orphanage I was going to be volunteering at for one month.
Telling me that he had to go to hospital to get his injured shoulder tended to, he put me in a taxi (where seatbelts seemingly served only a decorative purpose) that would take me to Takeo, the small town 50 miles away where the orphanage was. Pulling out into a never-ending stream of motorbikes and tuk-tuks (carriages pulled by a motorbike), the driver managed to edge his way onto the right side of the road, honking his horn incessantly to make his presence known as he did so. As we drove along the dusty road and the sun set across the tree-dotted landscape it slowly began to sink in - I was in Cambodia.
One and a half rather bumpy hours later, we arrived in darkness at the guest house I would be staying in and was welcomed by a young and smiling Cambodian woman – Anou - the assistant director of the orphanage. After drinking a much-appreciated glass of water, I sat in the front room and met some other volunteers before putting my bags in my room.
Later we all headed to the outside dining area where we were treated to a meal of battered pork skewered on sugar cane, green beans and the ubiquitous Asian staple, rice. Chunks of juicy watermelon followed, which I washed down with a sweet Angkor beer - the Cambodian drink of choice.
After settling in front of the TV in the upstairs lounge, away from hungry mosquitoes, I went to bed fatigued and still jet-lagged. I fell asleep to the gentle whirring of an electric fan - its revolving breeze providing some relief from the heavy and humid air.
The next morning after breakfast (invariably bread and eggs) I headed to the orphanage itself which was a 10 minute walk from the house.
Today however I was transported by tuk-tuk, the one used by the orphanage to go to market and transport volunteers back and forth. Soon it and two others would be placed around Cambodia to promote the orphanage.
I arrived while most of the kids were at school (they attend in the morning and afternoons in shifts, with a few hours in between for lunch to escape the sun).
At first I slowly wandered around the area, snapping away with my camera while trying to absorb everything and decide what exactly I could do with my time here.
There is a main building with two rooms where all the kids sleep, along with two bathrooms. The back however was being built up to create a dining area and new bathrooms, which would be close to complete by the time I left.
A tree-house had been built to the left and on the right there was a large pond with ducks and fish. Opposite the main building was a classroom as well as a workshop (storing wood and tools) and a salon for the kids to practice hairdressing and a sewing room.
Run by the New Futures Organisation, the orphanage is home to 52 children, aged from six to 19. Throughout the day they would come up to me and shout "Hello!" before eagerly shaking my hand and asking me my name, and telling me theirs. It was incredible how friendly the children were and how easily they dealt with new faces coming into their home.
What was also striking about the children was how small most of them are.
Many of them had been malnourished, either in the womb or during early childhood and despite eating substantial meals at the orphanage, the damage for some, had been done. One 16-year-old looked scarcely older than 12 while some just entering their teenage years could pass for eight or nine.
Only a third of the kids actually have no family - some are economic orphans, whose family simply cannot afford to look after them, while others were sent to NFO through social services.
They would all have a story to tell (some more unpleasant than others), that is, if they wanted to tell it.
They seemed to run around relatively care-free, getting up at dawn to exercise and get ready for school. They play games, do their washing and help tidy the orphanage.
They love to get involved in any projects organised by volunteers, like building or painting. There is an emphasis on obtaining practical life skills and so the opportunity to sand, saw or even weld is grabbed with both hands - though not necessarily with the appropriate safety gear covering them.
The older kids at the orphanage, particularly the girls, mostly like to keep to themselves in their room, occasionally coming to the classroom area for extra help with English or French. When you’re 18 it must be hard being surrounded by 50 other kids and having little or no personal space.
After lunch back at the house I braved the afternoon heat to play volleyball, a sport which almost everyone in Cambodia (or at least all the men) seemed to play. Some of the kids take the game particularly seriously and the forfeit for losing is 10 push-ups.

The afternoon was filled with yet more photo-taking, meeting more kids, and letting them run around with the camera taking pictures too.
As the sunlight and heat began to fade, all the volunteers made their way back to the house to get ready for dinner. I walked along the dusty tracks as names, sights, sounds and ideas swirled around my head.
The following day two American volunteers and I began designing a mural for one of the outside walls at the orphanage. Inspired by some stamps that were lying around, we decided on a trio of dinosaurs playing musical instruments and after sketching them on paper, we got to work on painting them onto the wall.
In between playing Chinese chequers, volleyball and going to the paint shop, the mural soon began to take shape.
And of course with the kids eager to lend a hand, the masterpiece was finished in a few days.
It was now the weekend and so I took the time to explore the local market – the hub of the village where everyone went to buy anything from fabrics and tools to meat and clothing.
Set under a canopy that cut off much of the daylight it was a sprawling labyrinth of stalls and alleyways – a somewhat less glamorous Aladdin’s cave full of exotic fruit, brightly-coloured silks and designer goods (all genuine, of course).
Nonchalant workers swayed in hammocks behind their counters (a concept I feel should be introduced to the UK) casually gesturing to buy something in between staring at us, the foreign visitors.
The food section was especially interesting. After following the pungent aromas of meat we came to an area where traders perched on their stalls chopping up carcasses.
Flies buzzed around their wares which ranged from pieces of chicken and pigs’ heads to sausages and the famed century egg – a black egg preserved with clay and ash until the yolk is green and the white brown. I didn’t sample it.
I later stepped out bleary-eyed into the sun and walked back to the house, then to the orphanage for some volleyball.
Lunch was had just down the road, at a shop on the side of the street that served up bowls of delicious noodles for the grand sum of 25 cents. Alongside I had a fluorescent drink that was as sweet as it was delicious. Made up of syrup and condensed milk over ice, these were to become dangerously addictive.
The next day, Sunday, was when all the kids were off school and so the volunteers decided to put on a kind of sports day.
Hours of dodge ball, skipping, wheelbarrow races and dooking for apples were topped off with fizzy drinks and biscuits, a recipe for a sugar-fuelled frenzy if ever there was one.
It was great to introduce some new games to the children and they especially loved plunging their heads into water to grab the fruit and getting soaked (and afterwards throwing the water around soaking everyone else).
After the festivities wore down, the volunteers, as worn out as the kids, headed back for dinner and some (card) games of our own.
The air was particularly sticky and outside the darkness did nothing to dissipate the heat.
Not even the fan, with its rickety, plastic blades in a constant whirl, could provide sufficient breeze. And there were no drinks from the fridge to cool out foreheads.


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