Cambodia: A Kingdom of Wonder
on Phnom Penh Pal (Cambodia), 08/Sep/2014 16:16, 34 days ago
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I had previously done research that showed that schools received 65% of what they expected and that because of ring-fencing rules, they received money for things that they didn’t need and no money for things that they did. For example, schools may receive money for electricity even if that school didn’t have electricity. I had created a budget planning and disbursement tool that would help provincial offices of education (POEs) avoid these problems.In March and April, I travelled around 10 of Cambodia’s 25 provinces, some of which are not renowned for their beauty. Each one though provided me with moments of curiosity and awe that could justify the proclamation that this is a Kingdom of Wonder, and not just a Siem Reap of temples.My two colleagues Vutha and Nipun sitting at the River Mekong in Kratie. Kratie may have the best sunsets I've ever seen. Either Vutha or Nipun did all of the training with me. Absolute starsI started in Kampot, which is one of my favourite places. It’s a town on the river, has beautiful rice fields set against sharp, jutted hills, and sunsets that leave you at peace with the world. It also had two young female teacher trainees sitting all day at the entrance gate to the teacher training centre. People often joke that Cambodia really is the Kingdom of Wonder, because you can only wonder at some of the ridiculous things that happen here. Judging by their polite smiles as I entered and again when I left, they had obviously not been ejected from their class for bad behavior so I asked them what they were doing sitting outside all day. They told me that they were the guards for that day. My face must have conveyed slight astonishment as they reassured me that it was ok because they didn't do it every day; tomorrow it would be the turn of two other students.How can you not love Banteay Meanchey, when this is the view from the Provincial Office of Education?Cambodia has their own currency (the riel) which is used interchangeably with the US dollar. If something is 5000 riel, I can give $1 and 1000 riel to equal 5000 riel. Banteay Meanchey near the Thai border threw me a little as they began quoting prices at me in Thai Baht. It also surprised me with its love gardens. These lush manicured gardens were where people went for wedding pictures, romantic walks and just for general hanging out. Which this concrete little dwarf seemed to be doing.More excitedly Banteay Meanchey also had a pop concert and fayre when I was there. I threw darts which bounced back off the balloon without bursting them, and was hung onto, for a full ten minutes, by a drunk woman who didn’t seem to be speaking Khmer or understanding my desire to keep my arm attached to my body. Battambang is famous for its cultural heritage, fertile land and beautiful women. But for those in the know (my colleague Nipun), it also has a famous place for duck noodle soup. The reason that it is only for those in the know is that it doesn’t have a name. It is simply called ‘three buildings’ because it has expanded to be housed in three consecutive buildings from its original one. Battambang also has various temples atop hills and one has a cave out of which millions of bats fly out every sunset darkening the sky immediately above you and drawing a weaving black line through the sky as they all fly in formation.Another wonderful thing in Battambang is the bamboo train. Get two axles, put a bamboo flat bed on it attach a motor and zoom down a train track. The problem is that there is only one line, so when another person comes in the opposite direction, one train has to be dismounted from the tracks - as we did here. A cave at another temple is where there used to be an escape route to Thailand during the Khmer Rouge regime. There was also a drip of water being collected in a bucket in the ice cool underground cauldron. Many times in Cambodia, we have found ourselves unsure of what do when given something but aware that you are expected to dosomething. So, imagining that I was in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, I gently put the cup to my lips before being shouted at to stop. I had not chosen wisely - it was not for drinking but washing my face with.In Ratanakkiri, Vutha and I had a weekend to explore and had our own guide, the wonderful Kagna - a friend of Vutha's. We swam in waterfalls, picked fruit at her family's farm and even drank a little of her father's potent home brew, which did wonders for my ability to follow conversations in Khmer.Yeak Loum - a volcanic lake for a refreshing dipVutha, Kagna and meJust before we jumped in for swimVutha and I had a guesthouse with a bar that overlooks a lake that the sun rises onto. In the evenings, we drank cocktails and played Khmer chess, which is slightly different to the international version. My record at Khmer chess is nearly unblemished - I drew the first game I ever played and have lost every one since. The magic of Ratanakkiri is the colours though. The red dirt, mixed with a setting sun and green hills casts a haze over your senses that Mark Rothko has never done.                                                   Sunrise in Ratanakkiri, and me getting beaten chess. Again. I was in Stung Treng for less than 24 hours. The training with the POE went well although the Director of Finance was unable to stay for the whole time. We understood why after returning to our guest house at lunch time to find her, as the owner of it, sitting in the reception area. Sekong Bridge and the River Sekong, Stung Treng. Vutha will leave Cambodia the day after me to study in Japan. Before going to Stung Treng, the thought of being there for such a short time would not have displeased me but that was before I saw the river and sunset from the Sekong Bridge. Stung Treng, a place that was previously so bad that it was characterized by requiring you to travel 3 hours to Kratie for a good breakfast suddenly became a place that made me so happy that I became sad to realize that I may never be back.Cambodia: a Kingdom of Wonder, and that was only half of it.Gordon