Part 1: Arrival
Where to start? So much has happened since I was on the plane, so I’ll try to keep this spare as we start our course this morning at 10.30 and breakfast is at 10.00. I certainly don’t want to miss that.. one of the several things I had forgotten about group living is that you don’t ‘snack’ / eat / drink when you want to but when the group timetable dictates. It’s really quite good to be forced into a social routine (Cambodians normally eat together with shared dishes in the centre of the table to eat with their rice), but my stomach is rumbling and ready for food!
We arrived in Bangkok at 5.30 am local time, in the dark and rain. At the exit, the VSO team on board (or most of us at least) met up.. between us all we had met at least one other person on one of our courses and so were able to piece the group together. A highly organised young Dutch woman (who has just returned from China with her husband) then became the ‘de facto’ leader, as she had all the details of transit etc to hand. We spent an awkward but useful hour in the coffee shop waiting for our flight to be called, finding out where everyone came from… and where they were going. The PP flight was a big Airbus, but quite empty. It’s less than 400 miles and so only took 35 minutes or so from runway to runway, during which time they managed to serve us breakfast. However by this time I had little appetite left for airplane food, nor for the friendly service of the cabin crew… I just wanted not to have to take any more flights for a long time. Against my request for the first flight, I had been given a window seat on this flight. I closed my eyes for take off, and put the blind down as soon as I could. However well before landing they forced me to put it up again and so I stole a glance at the Mekong River and the strange aerial view of PP as we flew in…. it reminded me in part of old Malaysia with the rusting corrugated iron roofs, but there were lots of newly built concrete low rise and also around the outskirts several ‘toy town’ type developments – for all the world like ‘Persimmon Homes’ or ‘Barrat’ developments around a UK town, with white walls and pinkish terracotta tiles. The river looked superb: slow, muddy and very very wide.
We were met before immigration, as predicted, by VSO staff. We had been told they would provide us with our visa at PP airport. They obviously had not told check-in staff at Heathrow as I was almost refused entry onto the plane because I did not have a Cambodian visa. Thank goodness for that. There was a very large number of senior officials in uniform with braid and different numbers of stripes.. very little English and lots of forms to fill in. We also met one or two more volunteers who had been on the plane but not caught us at BK. Then it was into the minibus (how did they cram all of us and our luggage in!) and the joyride of our lives into PP and right through the centre. The guide books tell you about what to expect, but actually seeing mad behaviour on the streets was quite something else. At some points on the busiest boulevards (which are very wide), you could have as many as 20 cars and 200 bicycles / motorcycles waiting to turn left across oncoming traffic. The slightest hint of a space and the brave scouts at the front of the pack edge further into the oncoming crowd till a point is reached where the oncoming traffic has to stop. In this way, lane by lane, they mount their offensive. Suddenly the group who are turning left have become the main road, and we are now waiting for them to show weakness. .. any kind of gap or slight hesitation…. which we can move into.
The scariest thing of all though (although I am sure I will get used to it as it seems to be very common) was when a lone wolf driver, spotting a gap, crosses the facing traffic maybe 200 or 300 metres ahead of his left turn. He then crosses over the nearside of the opposite carriageway and drives against the traffic until his turn, which he can now make perfectly easily. This adds new excitement to the pedestrian’s life. As a pedestrian, don’t count on having any pavement to walk on. The pavement is occupied by parked cars, bikes, is torn up, is being used for some form of trading.. or there may not be one at all. On the plus side, I’m sure it means that you are alert at all times!! One thing is for sure: the only way to make driving work will be to adopt the same approach. In some ways it’s no different to walking along a busy street like Princes Street. You are constantly weaving in and out of crowds, subconsciously checking that you’re not stepping in front of someone moving faster, keeping your distance from those you are overtaking or weaving through. How often to you bump into another person? OK quite often! But collisions at slow speed are not dangerous. .. and most of the traffic is quite slow, especially in the really busy parts.
Part 2 VSO HQ
So we arrived at VSOHQ – a little courtyard before a long indoor office with an open covered outdoor area alongside. We sat exhausted and stunned, while Ella gave us a very brief introduction and told us we must be tired so there were going to do very little with us first day. The meeting and living accommodation is upstairs: a very nice big air conditioned meeting room, five bedrooms (three with twin beds and two with double) and a large pleasant lounge area where we eat and chat, with some great resources including a dvd collection and extensive library of books left by other volunteers over the years. Some of us were sent out to a guest house about 20 mins away, but luckily I was staying in the HQ sharing a room with Ingran Lingam, a late 20 something Doctor (Paediatrician) from London, taking a year out before his Registrar year. It’s pretty basic but generally OK. The kitchen is also basic… but the two Cambodian ladies who work during the day seem to be able to magic up some pretty good wholesome food for us all.
After a briefing and food yesterday evening, we chatted to a current volunteer in PP who has just renewed hi s contract for two years. He is working with the national handcrafts association to help them develop their business and marketing model. He was very reassuring about traffic ( ‘you soon get used to it’) and very positive both about his work and about the extent to which volunteers can make a difference, so we all felt much better after hearing him talk! Later, after food, I treated the group to a beer (as it was my birthday). Leandra, the Dutch lady I mentioned, was also born on 2nd Sept – but sometime after me (1976!!) and she had brought some of those nice Dutch waffle biscuits with her. I stuck to the beer in a local bar. $11 bought enough beer and diet coke for a group of 14.. I thought that was quite good. When we got back I went out like a light as soon as my head hit the pillow (at about 9.00) and slept through till 6.00, then after a brief look around slept again till 8.00.
Left to Right:
Gilly, Dave, Ingran, Me, John C, Leandra and Andre (her husband)