Friday 21 December 2007
We were lucky enough to spend a day volunteering at Prechrouk School while we were in Cambodia. Normally volunteers would spend at least two weeks teaching at the school but the Sage Foundation kindly let us volunteer for only a day as one of the Cambodian teachers, Vanak, was happy to have us help him teach English to the Year 8's and 9's.
The school is about an hours drive West of Siem Reap in a rural area not visited by tourists. The road isn't completely paved and the school has no water or electricity. There's no playing field or playground equipment. There's just two buildings: one for the primary school and one for the secondary school. They just have rooms, desks, chairs and blackboards and not much else for 700 students. They study subjects like math, english, khymer, geography, history and the sciences sharing the school between two shifts each day. Half the students study in the morning and half study in the afternoon. There's no fluffy subjects like art and music. There's no sports. There's no clubs.
We spent half a day getting an orientation of the school before the day volunteering. I was pleased to find that the Cambodian branch of Room to Read had provided the school with a library and a basic collection of school books. It's a charity we've donated to in the past. However, for the entire school, we discovered that they only had two dictionaries. That evening, we bought the school six more dictionaries but clearly they're desperately short of resources of every kind.
Vanak teaches 8 classes back to back. We missed the very first one since it started at 7am but we joined him for the other 7 working on the verb "to be" with his students. The class sizes weren't too bad and tended to range from twenty to forty students. The students were great. They're very well behaved, respectful and keen to learn. As in other countries, the really enthusiastic one's tend to sit in the front while some of the more reluctant students sit in the back. It seemed to me that the reluctant one's were just the students having a hard time keeping up with the pace of the class.
Vanak is an excellent teacher and clearly has a lot of fun with his classes. He's keen to be a better teacher but has no resources to help him learn. Cambodia needs a lot more teachers like Vanak but they're in very short supply. Many parts of Cambodia only have schools up to the primary level or none at all. Even if there is a school, it's a challenge to get the parents to consistently send their children to school as an education isn't valued. The children are needed to help with the farming work or sell souveniers to tourists. Ironically, the kids selling souveniers generally have very good language skills that will serve them well to get jobs in the tourism industry when they grow older.
Monday 10 December 2007
It's often a struggle to book a holiday. One option is to use a tour agent in your home country but I always feel you pay way too much for what you get. Essentially you're paying for a lot of marketing and sales overhead for a bulk travel product. You can also do it all yourself but it takes a lot of time and research and it's hard to get the itinerary all lined up nicely. You can easily end up paying rack rates and wasting a lot of time.
So an alternative is to find a local travel agency in the country you're visiting. The problem is finding one you can trust not to rip you off and that will customise an itinerary to fit your needs and interests rather that push you through bulk travel tours. The big drawback to these local agents is that you don't have much legal recourse if things go wrong so trust is a major concern.
We arranged our tour of Cambodia through AboutAsia Travel which is quite a unique tour operator run by Andy. Andy lives in Singapore and creates the custom itineraries while his head guide is based in Siem Reap and handles all the ground co-ordination. What is truly unique is that 50% off all the profits from a tour is donated to the Sage Foundation which helps children in Cambodia.
The cost of the tour was very reasonable but even if you think you're paying too much, it feels good to know that half of the profit is going to a good cause. What convinced me to go with AboutAsia Travel was a phone call I had with Andy where we discussed how to structure the itinerary and he clearly knew how to avoid the main tourist traps and offered ways to see Cambodia that many tourists missed. What really clinched it was that he could arrange with the Sage Foundation for a day of volunteer work for our family.
I arranged to pay on arrival rather than a bank transfer but in fact no one asked me for any payment when I got there. After a few days, I insisted it was time to pay and visited their office. Our guide told me it was considered a bit rude to ask for the money up front!
There were a couple of minor mess ups but nothing serious and nothing that they didn't bend over backwards to rectify. Overall, it felt like you were being looked after and that feels very relaxing after being so used to doing everything ourselves.
I managed to meet Andy before I left Siem Reap and had a interesting chat about the business and his work with the Sage Foundation. It's a great business model as it allows tourist dollars to have a direct impact helping local people. Today it's successful without any marketing and a lot of dedication from Andy. His challenge is to scale the business without him putting so many hours into it. Once the business model is proved and runs smoothly, then it can be replicated across Indochina and other developing countries.
So if you're thinking of visiting Angkor Wat, it's well worth your while contacting AboutAsia Travel and seeing what itinerary they can put together for you. Hopefully one day you can travel elsewhere with them.
Wednesday 5 December 2007
The modernity of Bangkok was a relief after Cambodia. We stayed at the Vengtai Hotel not far from the Khao San Road. Not very luxurious but clean and comfortable.
Unfortunately, my daughter came down with a high fever on arrival. I still had a bad cough and an on-again, off-again low grade fever. The two of us spent the whole of our time in Bangkok holed up in the hotel. Very boring.
Jenny and K* managed to cover lots of sights and get in some shopping. Luckily, they avoided catching what we had. R*'s fever finally broke before we were due to fly back to Kuala Lumpur.
Monday 3 December 2007
While Siem Reap is a small provincial town with rural sensibilities, Phnom Penh is very much a big city. It's crowded and the people aren't as friendly. The girls often dress with a sense of fashion and there's plenty of flash cars to prove that some Cambodians are wealthy.
Cambodia has a reputation as a very corrupt country. We we're never directly affected by corruption but we heard lots of stories. For example, the terrible road between Siem Reap and the Thai boarder never gets fixed because its alleged that Thai Airways pays a bribe to keep it that way. The guides we had technically work for the government but they give their salaries to their boss in exchange for not showing up at work. Instead, they all freelance and earn more however, they will still get a pension one day.
The roads in Phnom Penh are still dominiated by swarms of motoscooters. There's little sense of road safety and there's even less sense that there are any rules of the road. Many cars don't even have licenses and I heard many license are fake. Few helmets are used. Our tuk tuk didn't even use lights at night. At intersections, there's often no traffic lights or stop signs. Everyone just goes and weaves around each other! The main rule is that smaller vehicles make way for bigger vehicles and there's safety in numbers. Crazy.
Our first day, we visited the Tuol Sleng prison (S21) and the Choeung Ek Genocide Center at the Killing Fields. I've spent some time trying to understand Cambodian history since independence but its been a struggle to understand the Khmer Rouge and the purpose behind their brutal policies. The portraits of all the children they put to death at S21 was really upsetting. What I can't reconcile is this nice country and people with such a horrific past.
We also visited the Royal Palace which was fine but not overimpressive. It lacks the finish of fine artisans. We spent quite a bit of time at the Water Festival down by the riverfront watching the boat races. The tourist board had a special pavillion for any tourists which made it very easy to get a good view. The crowds in the city were phenomenal.
Unless, you are interested in the Khymer Rouge history, I don't think its worth visiting Phnom Penh. Rural Cambodia is more interesting than its cities.
My enjoyment of the trip was then cut short. I came down with a high fever and spent three days lying in my hotel bed while the family continued sightseeing. At least the Sunway Hotel was a very nice place. My fever broke just in time for us to fly to Bangkok. It seems it was a nasty flu.