Sunday, November 12, 2017

Carrying on in Kep

Things have been a bit quiet on the writing front for a few months but we now feel that we have settled into a sustainable and enjoyable lifestyle here in Kep. The irony of having achieved a work-life balance precisely when paid work is not necessary is not lost on me.

Not the first but not the least of the reasons Cambodia was the choice for our trial retirement was that we thought we possessed a skill set, that would enable us to contribute to the local community in an area where there was a need.

Having spent the first six months of this year in travel and holiday mode we arrived in Kep ready to put down roots and test that theory. The urgent business of finding suitable accommodation and getting ourselves established took precedence at first but the pressing need to do something productive and engage gave rise to making the effort to put ourselves out there and research the possibilities for volunteering in the local community.

On the very first visit to Kep Gardens Association the vibe felt right. Coincidently the owners, Janine and Andrew are Adelaidians and have almost ten years of experience. They have a proven track record with volunteers in all kinds of capacities and offer a wide range of training and education programs. Janine was quick to see exactly what we would be able to do within the framework of her English teaching program and took us up on our offer to volunteer immediately. By the second visit we had established starting times and doubled our commitment as she had realised the kind of assistance we could provide.

Starting at the beginning of November, when she had no other volunteers arriving, gave us the time we needed to make a flying trip to Bangkok and Phnom Penh. Therefore now, for the first time since leaving Thimphu in January we have all our possessions either stored in Adelaide or with us, not scattered across several countries. It also gave us time to mentally prepare for the fact that after almost ten months we were heading back to work, albeit in a nonpaid capacity.

We cycle out of town in the worst heat of the day to arrive at Kep Gardens for a 1:30pm start on Mondays and Wednesdays. The place is alive with the sounds of kids playing and learning well into the evening and we make the small contribution of listening to individuals read aloud and providing them with opportunities to build their confidence in communicating orally. The final class of the day includes older and more capable high school students and adults and we attempt to facilitate conversation and assist with preparing them for debating.

Of course we have also found other ways to contribute and have already supplied photos for what will become a regular monthly display showcasing Kep Gardens events and activities. Perhaps less successfully we have also contributed food for the newly established canteen struggling to instill environmentally friendly eating practices and make a profit.

By 8.15pm we are ensconced in a tuk-tuk with our bikes tied to the back and heading home. The routine is still new and we still marvel at how different everything looks after dark. Lights illuminate the roadside stalls and community gatherings abound and we get a glimpse into an aspect of Cambodian culture we would otherwise not be privy to.

You can find out more about the programs on offer and the opportunities to volunteer at

At about the same time as we had confirmed our yearlong commitment at Kep Gardens to Janine another exciting project presented itself to us. The owner of the beautiful Bamboo House, where we lived for the first three months, arrived terribly excited one afternoon with a request. Madam Yary has become a friend and she is both visionary and tireless in her effort to help less fortunate Cambodians. 

She is a benefactor of many local projects and she had come directly from a very poor monastery in a fishing village outside of Kep. She had that morning decided to fund a well digging operation and several other projects at this “pagoda” as they call them here. She wanted us to visit the monastery- no I can’t bring myself to call it a pagoda, the next day and commit to teaching the young monks English.

We agreed almost instantly and actually meeting the young monks on a rare festive occasion the following day sealed our fate.

Despite having no resources at all and no real concept of exactly how to teach a group of monks of widely divergent ages and with no shared language, we were hooked. Thus our quick trip to the capital en route to Bangkok became a mission to find and purchase books, flashcards, posters and as many other resources as possible.

Now we also have our own personal project. Unlike most other overseas teaching positions we have filled, we were completely on our own with this. It’s somewhat daunting given that we know little or nothing about the Cambodian education system or the protocol of how to behave in the ‘temple’ or interact with monks, somewhat challenging in that the need is great and the funds non existent and somewhat exhilarating in that having never approached anything like it before both we and the little monks are having so much fun together.

We returned from the capital loaded with all we thought we might need with one notable exception – a whiteboard or blackboard. We thought the latter would be more appropriate, cheaper and less likely to be damaged but that meant we had to construct it. Once again, Yary to the rescue. When we next saw her she was keen to find out how our project was going and immediately stated that we needed to do a quick sketch then and there so that her carpenters could make us a board.

Due to their religious duties our little monks- I try not to call them monkeys tempting as it is, are also scheduled for afternoon classes, so Tuesdays and Wednesdays involve cycling off in the heat of the day and along another well rutted and dusty unsealed back road. We chose to begin with Kep Gardens in November since once we start consistency is essential.  Now after a grand total of just three sessions we can see the beginnings of writing and recognizing the alphabet and a few simple words, counting confidently to ten and several simple rejoinder conversations that they are able to retain.

We know so little about early childhood education that it is a trial and error process but we are eager to do what we can and they are delighted with the writing, chorusing and attention generally. Sleepy little faces emerge as soon as we dismount and they start setting up low tables and mats just as we did on the first session. It is the active learning activities, with cards, relay running and balls that they love the most. I wonder if they even have play time.

They have amazing powers of concentration and attention given that they do not eat after twelve noon and we arrive mid afternoon. Their earnest little faces and endearing mannerisms have already won our hearts and inspired us to do as much as possible to help.

Janine has been generous with the resources she has accumulated over the years and we have a growing client relationship with a local print shop due to the volume of material we print.   

This seems to have become an epic update but I will end with a few anecdotes from the first few classes:-
1. One of the youngest among them was painstakingly tracing and writing the letter “d” while muttering under his breath “Here you are. Thank you” like he was a chanting a prayer. We had been doing that just before the letters and he obviously wanted to remember.
2. Another of the older boys was colouring with such care and attention and repeating to himself “good boy, good boy” in exactly the tone I use.
3. After having lined up all the cards and realia they can recognise at the opposite end of the room, Ian and I tried to demonstrate the idea of hearing the word and racing to get the object nominated. As we took of running they ALL did too and returned with every single item!!

It would help to be able to explain and give instructions in a language they already know but we are getting by and its all part of the fun.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

oNe PhOtO a DaY OcToBeR 2017


SUNDAY 1st MY HAPPY PLACE: I’m always glad to be home and perfectly comfortable hiking in the mountains or swimming in a pool but my true happy place is at the beach when the sun is setting and all the tourists and locals have left. This was the scene yesterday at the famous crab statue in Kep

MONDAY 2nd ENVELOPE: Last year I kept a memorable moments gratitude jar but this year we knew we would be travelling for 6 months so I record all the exceptional events and red letter days on coloured paper and store them in this old fashioned orange tie sealed envelope. We will read the slips of paper and remember our special experiences in 2017 on New Year’s Eve. I love this ritual I established to cultivate more gratitude and appreciation

TUESDAY 3rd I BOUGHT THIS! : Yesterday it was actually cool and overcast so we took the opportunity to explore on our bikes. As a lover of cane ware and baskets I couldn’t resist this. I bought this locally made basket for $1.25 at the little village market at Dam Nak Chang Er. It’s already a welcome addition to our decor even though I have no specific purpose for it yet

WEDNESDAY 4th FAR AWAY: Late morning we set off on our bikes to find out how far away the monastery where we will volunteer is? Along the way on muddy unsealed back roads we passed little fishing villages and these ocean views and I couldn’t help but think the modern world of technology seems far away from these fishing and salt producing communities

THURSDAY 5th TODAY’S WEATHER: Bright sunshine and blue skies with a hint of clouds gathering over the palms and mango trees in the front yard. So long as you are not standing out in it, it’s perfect. Waiting for some afternoon shade to go swimming

FRIDAY 6th SOMETHING GREEN: Green coconuts on the stem, in piles, on the side of the road, ready to be opened up to drink outside the market in Kep. This is a local cash crop and we often see carts of them and mounds of them at roadside stalls. If only there were someway to serve them without the plastic straws: all the other waste from this delicious drink is organic.....

SATURDAY 7th RELAXING: Doing laps in this pool and hanging out in this wonderfully peaceful garden was a relaxing start to our weekend. We are grateful to the owner for providing us with access to this gorgeous residence. Our regular swimming routine has certainly enhanced our daily lives and fitness over the last three months

SUNDAY 8th TREASURE: Just one of the little treasures that I have had with me for many years and which contribute to making each new house a home. (This is his sixth home) This tiny Buddha sits in the kitchen window in the School House these days and with the bright morning sun behind it the red paper background seems to be glowing pink

MONDAY 9th GOOD FOR ME: As a traveller I try to make food choices and purchases that are good for me and good for the local community too

TUESDAY 10th ANGLE: Plenty of angles and the odd curve sitting over the wing as we flew into Bangkok early this morning

WEDNESDAY 11th A FAVOURITE: Today we returned to Khun Churn, which has been a favourite vegetarian restaurant in Bangkok for six years and made our first ever trip to the Bangkok IKEA which is a favourite for home wares and we have frequented the Adelaide store in the past. Several purchases were made at both

THURSDAY 12th I SAW THIS: from the local ferry boat on the Chao Phraya (river) in Bangkok this afternoon just as the rain was about to set in. One of the few times Wat Arun has not been covered in scaffolding when we sailed by

FRIDAY 13th TREES: Today it is the first anniversary of his death, and images of King Bhumibol abound in Thailand. As an avid conservationist he is often depicted with trees. This is one of many paintings currently on exhibition in Bangkok

SATURDAY 14th PERSPECTIVE: Another shot from art exhibits in Bangkok shows us how our addiction to social media dictates a new need to be constantly charged up.  This artist’s perspective spoke to me. Social media is changing our perspective and our interaction with the world

SUNDAY 15th SNUGGLE: I admit I was a bit stumped with this prompt but then I saw this. Whether on a bicycle or a motorcycle it’s necessary to snuggle up to fit on the required number of passengers. Three to a bike or ‘moto’ is pretty common here- six is the maximum I’ve seen, but it’s hard to capture them as they whizz by. I seem to be on an art kick at the moment too

MONDAY 16th MY NAME: spelt with one of the sets of flash cards and scattered among other resources, all of which we bought today. We hope they will help us begin our project to teach English to the monks at a poor local monastery in Kep

TUESDAY 17th GADGET: We have a stick blender and it is one of the most useful kitchen gadgets I have ever owned. Cream soups, thick dal, and sauces all became possible in the Himalayas with it and now ice-cold smoothies and fruit shakes and hummus are regulars in our diet due to this simple gadget. This particular one we bought in Thailand and will give as a gift to our former landlady for allowing us to live in her beautiful bamboo house and continuing to permit us to use her private pool. Her generosity has enabled us to settle into our new lifestyle in Kep, with ease

Wednesday 18th ONE WORD: that always makes me smile and almost the last purchase we made in the capital- VEGEMITE!!! We have spent the last 10 days in Bangkok and Phnom Penh, buying things for our new house in Kep.  After checking all the places we knew, we couldn’t find any Vegemite. Then voila walked into a new supermarket and there it was. An expat Aussie’s dream come true. We now have about three months supply and it’s time to stop buying and start living the simple life again

THURSDAY 19th ORGANISED: Just a month ago this was a blank wall and there was no storage space at all in our tiny galley kitchen. Now we have organised everything in one simple wall unit made to measure locally. It contains all our pots and pans, storage containers, food, crockery and glasses and we love it and how it made the limited kitchen space simple but functional. To prove how small it is I actually had to go outside and take this shot through the kitchen window to get most of it in the frame

FRIDAY 20TH FLORAL: A floral decoration of closed lotus blooms taken at Central Market Phnom Penh. The lotus is a symbol of purity and often used in Buddhist Temples. “May I live like the lotus at ease in the muddy water” and rise unsullied from the mud to bloom in perfect purity and bring joy and beauty into the world

SATURDAY 21st RIGHT NOW: the focus is on establishing a garden. Seeds have been sourced in four countries. One trip to the local nursery for potting mix and we just had to buy a few “Cuban Jasmine” plants for the exotic fragrance as well. We have saved tones of empty yoghurt containers to raise the seedlings. So now that the house set up, the volunteering scheduled to start in Nov, we have a 10-day window to get composting and make a garden happen. Starting right now

SUNDAY 22nd I WROTE THIS: on my blog at a particularly dark time when I was anxious, worried and depressed. I tried to focus on the positives and live with gratitude and appreciation. It helped me then and that philosophy has guided me for more than two years now. It is also one of the most read posts. If you want to read the whole post the blog address is in the middle of the screen shot. These days I don’t write as much but ever since childhood I have written down my worries, thoughts and ideas as a way of coping with them. Now my blog is mostly PAD monthly summaries but I still find I can’t resist writing detailed captions- just like this one LOL

MONDAY 23rd SOMETHING ORANGE: Anyone who knows me know that I love orange. This was always going to be easy. I also love to cycle BUT this is not my bike. It was parked at Kep Gardens when we arrived there this morning. No bike envy but I did have to admire it

TUESDAY 24th ONE OF A KIND: There may well be other mini mokes in Cambodia but this is certainly the only one I have seen and with an original “water colour” of an ocean scene on the bonnet, it is most definitely one of a kind

WEDNESDAY 25th IN FLIGHT: Today on our first full day at Kep Gardens this illustration was on the whiteboard. I loved that it was a bird in flight not a conventional drawing of a bird and very good copy from the text

Thursday 26th STICKY: It’s the sticky stamen in this hibiscus flower that attracts pollinators. I love the simplicity of these sunny summer flowers and I always associate them with summer

FRIDAY 27th GATE: On our ride to Dam Nak Chang Er village market this morning we stopped at the gates of this temple. It is rare to actually be able to see the temple through the gates like this. Usually these gateways just indicate the entrance and a dirt path winds away from them with the actual temple well out of sight.

SATURDAY 28th LOOKING DOWN: Whenever we are out on our bikes I can’t resist looking down these enticing tracks off the main road. I’m always searching for the next place to go exploring in the local area. This was today’s new discovery but we were on a mission so We kept it for another day ... “yet knowing how way leads on to way”

SUNDAY 29th ON TOP: Homemade recycled folder with Buddha’s hand on top. All the materials in this are repurposed and I made it this morning from cardboard packaging, reused wrapping paper and greeting cards and two plastic sleeves. Seemed appropriate to have Buddha’s hand on top as we will use it to carry materials to the monastery, where we will begin teaching young monks this week

MONDAY 30th HOME SWEET HOME: Although we have only been here for a month and a half, with prayer flags up, our photographs on the walls, the Aussie flag flying and that orange decor, it’s already starting to feel like home sweet home

TUESDAY 31st WILD: In this humid tropical climate if you turn your back things simply return to the wild. This gem is directly opposite a five star resort and metres from the ocean. The sign on the gate says “land for rent”. I’m sure it looked trim and tidy just a couple of months ago but now the whole block has returned to the wild