23.03.2012 - 24.03.2012 -14 °C
“A ship in harbour is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.”
Today I leave for Cambodia.
For those of you who don't know much about Cambodia, here is a quick primer:
- It is located in South-East Asia, in former French Indochina: snuggled in East of Thailand, West of Vietnam & South of Laos.
- Most Cambodians call themselves Khmer. This is also the name of their language & ancient empire. They call Cambodia Kampuchea.
- English has overtaken French as the other language (who call the place "Cambodge"). Sorry, Frogs!
- They are +7hrs ahead of GMT, between both Tropics & in some places only 10 degrees away from the equator. It's hot out there!
- In the 1970s in one of the worst Genocides in history, the Agrarian Communist Khmer Rouge led by the Dictator Pol Pot murdered over a third of the entire population. This is not a country of many old people: the median age there is only 22 years old & the country is still haunted by their recent past.
- As a result of the upheavals of the 20th Century, Cambodia is a very poor country in the world - but this is rapidly changing due to rapid economic growth (upwards of 10% a year) & the recent discovery of huge natural gas deposits off the coast. Perhaps one of the greatest challenges yet to come will be dealing responsibly with the corporate giants who will be keen to sweep in & exploit this?
- It is also famous for its Archaeology & Temple Complexes, especially Angkor Wat.
- It is the setting for several films, including Apocalypse Now, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider & The Killing Fields.
Why am I going?
Primarily I am Volunteering with an Aid Agency
I will be going out there for several months to work with disadvantaged children over the coming months, teaching them English & hopefully a couple of other skills as well. Out there, being able to speak English is incredibly valuable & open the door to far better life prospects. Granted, there are negative aspects to this - such as the possible loss of cultural heritage & the potential to get hooked on The X Factor - but I hope that the positives will outweigh negatives!
The facilities will be fairly Spartan from a Western perspective: my loving family find the fact that I will have to shower out of a bucket for the next few months a source of constant amusement(!) The internet is also satellite-based - so please bear with me if the weather is bad!
Secondary to this I hope to explore more of what the country has to offer
Many of you will already know that I am a massive history nerd & keen deep sea diver; so the opportunity to experience some of the best sites for both in the region is something I'm really looking forward to. Angkor Wat is defintely on my list, but I'd also love to check out the lesser-known temples at Preah Vihear. This might be a little different as I think the Thai Army may still be shelling their Cambodian counterparts as the territory is claimed by both nations. Legacy land mines & other unexploded ordnance remains a big issue in the region - so I may have to be a little more careful than usual & buy a few sweeper goats to herd ahead of me on my adventures.....
A note on preparations
Travelling to South East Asia, and particularly former Indochina is no picnic from a pathology POV. Before travelling, it was apparently necessary to have the Argos Catalogue of injections in my arm. Oh, that & my GP said I'll also have to be munching on anti-malarials whilst out there (yummy). I must keep myself optimistic and look at it from a positive side as one of the many joys of travelling to somewhere exotic: why die from some boring European danger like some drunk beta-male in a BMW when you can expire in style from a Tropical Parasitic Intestinal Blood-worm?
To be honest, I was more concerned about visiting the Cambodian Embassy as my previous experiences haven't exactly been a barrel of laughs. The obvious example here would be the US Embassy in London: an imposing fortess of concrete and metal with a generous sprinkling of Bomb Barriers/Armed Guards/Bio-Scanners/CCTV/Spiked Fences where you can expect to be frisked hard & grilled to the extent of "what makes you think you're good enough to even look at the USA?" (let alone set foot in The Land Of The Free - gotta love that Special Relationship).
The Royal Cambodian Embassy in London throws this image out the window & probably wins an award for the cutest, most adorable embassy on the planet. It is a small detached house in Willesden Green with a low fence & small flag that upon entering resembles a smart hotel lobby. The staff were so friendly that they actually apologised to me for keeping me waiting at the wooden gate (for 30 seconds). As I went to leave after collecting my visa the other day, they went out of their way to give their thanks 'for your interest in our country - we are very grateful, sir', offering me more maps to help me on my way around Cambodia. Not going to lie, I could get used to this....
So what I know of Cambodians so far has been all positive - but I must stop and get showered & changed because I need to leave for Heathrow Airport very soon! I'm Flying with Etihad, have to transfer at Abu Dhabi as well as Bangkok & will be in transit for well over 24 hours (vile!) - expect an update in the next week or so!