Category Archives: Cambodia

Thailand – Land of Smiles, Lemongrass and Corianger

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It’s reputation precedes it… Sexy, seedy, scorching. Thousands of travellers (young and old) flock there every year – the Land of smiles, Lady Boys, Ping-Pong shows, Thai Brides, Full Moon Parties and “The Islands”…To be honest, it all felt a bit daunting.

However, my first foray as a “Farang” helped me see a completely different side to the traveller stereotype and gave me a taste of Thai life as a local (well sort of). Thanks to the amazing volunteering organization Lemongrass, I spent an incredible two weeks teaching English at a Government school in Surin (a seven hour bus ride north east of Bangkok).

Possibly the most reasonably priced volunteering scheme around, Lemongrass provides its volunteers with a very comfortable home, full teaching support and the best tour guide in Thailand (thanks June) to see the local sights by scooter or local truck (or bike if you can ride one!).

Trip highlights included the Thasawang Silk Village where you can see intricate Thai silk being woven by hand; the Ta Klang Elephant Village in Tha Toom District with four-legged  film stars and footballers and the Khwao Sinarin silver making village, where it’s impossible not to be mesmorised by the hand made beads being fashioned from makeshift tools, under the shelter of a stilted, wooden house.  And, that’s without even mentioning the local markets, the odd Rice Convention (did you know there are over 120,000 types of rice?) and a Thai Country and Western Karaoke.

But we were there to actually teach…Every morning the Tuk Tuk rumbled and spluttered outside the house, we took the 15 minute ride to school to be met with the wide smiles and eagerly expectant eyes of our students. Having not experienced many native westerners before, the pupils were fascinated by our hair, skin, the way we spoke and the games they knew we’d be playing throughout the lessons – Bingo was a particular favourite!

Staying through rainy season we experienced floods, waded through knee deep water to get to the noodle shack across the road and watched the fish swim across the driveway. During downtime we’d wave to the local elephant as he made his daily walk by the house selling (and eating) sugar cane, got to grips with a great number of geckos and learnt to cook Thai food – June’s fish can salad has a mean kick!

Although I enjoyed learning to cook, Thai food was my stumbling block. Despite sampling a full range of Thai cuisine from roadside Pad Thai, Pork Satay, a plethora of noodle soups; the school canteen’s ground, minced and fried frog and super spicy papaya salad; plus hotel A la Carte curries, I am still not a Thai food convert. This is due to my absolute hatred of coriander – the standard ingredient of most Thai food. This menu translation for fried fish summed up my feelings and gave us a titter!

Anyway, apart from my food foibles, suburban and rural Thailand is beautiful and completely different from the decadent and debauched ditties of many a traveller. The Lemongrass experience was amazing. I have made some great friends, been humbled by the kindness and generosity of wonderful students and learnt to appreciate a totally different way of life.

Lemongrass are always looking for volunteers, so get involved and have yourself a unique Thai experience you’ll cherish forever…

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Cambodian Culture Shock

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Cambodia has become a trendy, almost cliché, destination for gap yahs and travellers – but don’t let that put you off – as it’s as grateful for the tourist dollar as you can get and it is certainly an experience you will never forget.

Films like “The Killing Fields” and books including’ “First they killed my father” and “When Broken Glass Floats” have highlighted the plight of Cambodians under Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s. I’d watched the film in communist China (where incidentally it is banned) and read enough to be moved into visiting this country that has lived through unspeakable horrors during my lifetime.

Cambodia is an incredibly interesting, uncomfortable and humbling country. It also offered my first taste of complete culture shock…

The usual things are different and, like anywhere, take a bit of getting used to – there’s the language with its flowery and ornate alphabet; the food – unique, flavoursome curries with delicacies borne out of extreme poverty such as grilled cockroaches, fried crickets and ants, snake bacon as well as the ‘medicinal’ tarantula rice wine (not for the weak of stomach)!

But there is a whole new level of culture shock in Cambodia found amongst the lack of roads (mainly dirt tracks), crumbled infrastructure, the seriously depleted public amenities (everything from basic electricity and water supplies to inadequate hospitals and school buildings).

And that’s even before the rainy season hits and washes away and entire year’s rice crop and turns the muddy streets into a waist high, brown rivers. Or, before one of the estimated 50,000 orphaned street children surrounds you – tugging at your arms (and your heart strings) to buy postcards, bracelets and other wares for “one dollar mister” so they can afford to go to school and avoid becoming  sex workers or child slaves.

In contrast to this are the cash-bought Lexus’ that cruise the streets of Phnom Penn, where the disparity between rich and poor are a stark reminder of the country’s corruption.

And, if that isn’t mind blowing enough, there’s the average age of the population…21years old. Only 3% of the country is over 65. Every single generation of every family has been affected by Year Zero and the maiming and killing of completely innocent citizens –sometimes for something as normal as wearing glasses or coming from a city.

But from Siem Reap and the awe-inspiring temples of Angkor Wat or the extreme tuk-tuk rides through dark and flooded back alleys, to the beaches of Sihanoukville and the Killing Fields of Phnom Penn, nowhere else (yet) have I found more genuine, warm and hard working people, always smiling and would share with you anything they can, including their stories.

Gone are the days where you are greeted a your hostel with a welcome bag of weed but yes, there are psychedelic aging hippies and more than the ideal quota of Trustafarians which give it the great unwashed traveller stereotype, but it is an incredible, resilient place that should be given its dues on any travellers itinerary.