Tengku Mahmood once more….

One of the classes in 1976!!

Regular readers will remember that last April I went back to Malaysia to visit the many old friends we have out there(see the holiday of a lifetime   and Malaysia No More ).   Fuziana told us ‘Malaysia is your second home’.  While there, I decided to revisit my old school and to see if I would run into any of my former school pupils or teachers.  I should have been better organised.  After a fruitless wander to a couple of addresses with no-one home, I had  a phone call with one former student and then managed to locate another (Sudin b Ismail) on our way to Kuala Terengganu to stay with our teacher friends there.  While it was great to meet up with Sudin, I regretted that I had not been better organised earlier in my ‘search’.   An earlier Facebook search might have helped.   However I later made contact with Nik Kamisah through Facebook.

It turns out there was a TMS reunion this week, after which Nik Kamisah sent out the link to my Facebook page ( Danny Murphy ) and lots of my former students from the mid70s are now my Facebook friends!  I can’t understand even a tenth of the chat in the ‘ex TMS’ Facebook group (I am now a member), but it’s great to reconnect after so many years.  It’s also a remarkable tribute both to the power of Facebook and the power of VSO!!   No doubt there are many more photos like the one above taking up shelf space somewhere on the East Coast of Malaysia!

Here’s the story of the reunion in the Malaysian press:

Tengku Mahmood Reunion


VSO Education

VSO have a current need for Primary School teachers, with 2+ years successful teaching experience, to help with the training of Primary School teachers in some of its partner countries in Asia and Africa.   There are loads of other Education vacancies for teachers at all stage of their career.   Follow this link:  VSO Education

Rwanda primary school

I recently spoke at a VSO Education event in Edinburgh, when a young teacher from an Edinburgh school shared her experience of working in rural Ethiopia – how she had grown and developed from a fantastic life-changing experience, and how she had contributed to those she worked with through her professional knowledge and commitment to helping children to learn.

If you’ve been thinking about it, and have the right skills, now is a great time to volunteer.

Our VSO group go off to work

As a 6/7 month volunteer, I have been at work for a few weeks now -mine is a more intense experience all round I think!!   The longer term volunteers in my group, most of whom are doing two years, had a longer language course, a placement week to set themselves up in their house / meet work colleagues and a concluding couple of days of ‘training’ in Phonm Penh this week, though some of them had quite a rush at the end to buy equipment etc for their houses in quite remote areas.  It was really nice to meet up with them all again.  One of the great things about this VSO experience is getting to know such a varied group of committed volunteers, all here in order to share their skills and knowledge to help with the development of Cambodia and to learn and develop personally from local culture and the challenges of the experience.   I went up to Kampong Cham again last week for the motorbike/road safety session (great fun) and then met up with the group again yesterday (Friday) for a final overview session on Education in Cambodia.

In the evening, most of them came down to my place and we drank a few beers and chatted till late.   They are all setting off to their placements this week – two to Mondulkiri, one to Rattanakiri, one to Kraje, three to Stung Treing, one to Kampot, one to Battambong and three of us staying here in Phonm Penh – and the accompanying partners also heading upcountry – truly a labour of love!   One piece of good news – Andre is recovering now from the accident in Kg Cham and only needs physiotherapy.

I should have taken a couple of photos of the evening but we were too busy chatting!! It was both sad (to see everyone head off, knowing that we have shared a special experience) and inspiring (so much knowledge and enthusiasm which can only come from volunteering) in equal measure.   One way or another they will all make a signficant contribution to their specialist field (most are in education), to international understanding and friendship (in Cambodia) and to helping people in their home countries to understand and appreciate the complexity of the world we live in, not least through their blogs..  you can find links to these on Sam and Gilly’s blog, if you want to follow up:   http://www.ourvso.com/

One of the strange things of the past week was meeting up with the next batch of volunteers, more of whom are in ‘health’.  They came out last Thursday and when I went up to meet them last Friday evening, they all looked zonked!! as we had done on our first full day on Sept 2nd.  It was nice, and somewhat alarming, that I was viewed as an expert on all aspects of living in Cambodia after my limited experience!  They are now away in Kampong Cham for language training.  I hope they will have a great time there.

… the loneliness of the long distance volunteer….

Phonm Penh once more…

I have not enjoyed my return to Phonm Penh.  It is partly just the inevitably human emotional feeling of being alone.   I am now living on my own for the first time since Falkirk 1977.. and that was only a couple of months ….. and I’m not sure that I like it (‘well you think he could have worked that one out’, I hear you saying).    It’s combined with the feeling of being new and strange to everything…. as a visitor who is living here, you can’t just do the tourist thing.  Nor, as a volunteer, do you want (even if you could afford it) to do the contract ‘ex pat’ thing, eating in the supercool restaurants and bars around PP at three or four times local prices.  On the other hand things as basic as buying food can be a real hassle without language to cope.   On the plus side, I did manage on Sunday to equip my place with some fairly basic items so I have been able to cook a meal, make a cup of tea etc.  I also, on Monday, managed to cycle around Phonm Penh.  This I count as a major achievement and my success gave me the confidence to cycle to work on Tuesday, although I am a bit worried about having to cycle in the rain as the cheap raincoat I bought in Kg Cham has disintegrated.  If you get the impression that my life has descended into a series of mini-crises about extremely small matters, you would be right!  The emotional is enjoying being in the dominant over the intellectual!!   Cycling down one of the main boulevards felt like a major achievement.   It could be a while before I feel confident enough to post a little blog of that particular journey!   My emotional life has now taken over almost completely!!

Forget about my first two days in the job I came to do (more of that later!) – I am having enough problems just coping with the strain of setting up a home in a place where I know no-one, can speak very little of the language and find even the most basic everyday things such as getting from A to B a real challenge.  I think I’m maybe just too used to having a buddy alongside, which is hardly surprising given that Joan and I have been married for almost 34 years!  However I know that I will build routines doing things I like doing and find suitably agreeable company to chat/socialise.  Behind all this though is the work thing…  I will need to feel that whatever I do is helping in some small way, but the volunteer experience on this is not a uniform one, and I am still in the very early days.   I think that is a bit destabilising deep in some part of me.

There are many ‘laugh at yourself’ minutes in my days here.  My second day at work, for example, was not helped by going to the wrong meeting.  I was trying to find the correct room to meet up with a particular member of staff.  When I knocked on a door which might have been it (directions had been unclear).. I was greeted as a long lost friend and the people there got out a number of documents to go over with me and invited me to assist them with a variety of tasks involving national tests (!).. however I had expected the gentleman I was supposed to meet to appear.  He never did.  I went into the wrong room and ended up in the wrong meeting.   Not a great start.  Can anyone I know imagine me doing that at home??

It’s all good for the soul!

The VSO Group

The group of volunteers is a varied one, though we are told that the number of educationists is unusually high.  Altogether there are over 100 VSO volunteers in Cambodia, fairly evenly split across the three areas which have been prioritised for work here:

  • Sustainable livelihoods – everything from a volunteer advising small crafts organisations and craftspeople about marketing and sourcing markets for their products to volunteers with specialist expertise in fish farming;
  • Health – there is a particular emphasis on maternal / infant health, though not exclusively, and volunteers are working either directly delivering service (such as the young paediatrician, Ingran, whom I am sharing a room with just now), or working to support /train local practitioners (nurse trainers in hospital or health advisers for example) or working with local organisations to develop their professionalism (we have a volunteer supporting the Cambodian Midwives’ Assocation, for example) or working at policy level within the Ministry of Health;
  • Education – there is the same mixture of volunteer participation at different levels in the system, with a particular focus on primary and the first three years of secondary school.

Within our group we have:

Ingran – a paediatrician from London who will work in a provincial hospital in an area with significant maternal and child health problems;

Paul, a teacher from Oxford, who will work in a rural area supporting schools with inclusion;

Dave, who worked for Oxfam, who is the only member of our group going to work on improving liveliehoods;

Four of our group will be working as teaching and learning advisers in local education offices, supporting the development of more active learning approaches within schools and classrooms:

  • Gilly, a teacher from North London, in Kraje, in the middle of the country;
  • Jan, a teacher from Holland, in Sturn Treng further North;
  • Janet, a retired Headteacher from near Ipswich who will be doing the same thing in Ratanikiri in the far North East;
  • Vicky, a teacher from the Phillipines who has just undertaken a placement in North Eastern Ghana and is now going to be working in Kampot, in the south;

Leandra, a teacher from Holland, who has just returned from a two-year volunteer stint in China, is going to be working in the Teacher Training College in Battambong, Cambodia’s second biggest town near the Thai border;

Daniel, a teacher from Uganda, will be working in the East near Paul, in the district education office in Mondulkiri;

Kath, a retired NHS senior manager with a nursing background, will support the Midwives Assocation and John, an Irish educationist will do the same kind of job with the Cambodian Teachers’ Association.  These two will work in Phonm Penh, which is where I will be based in my job with the Curriculum Development section of the Ministry of Education, overseeing the progress of the inclusive curriculum development , ‘Child Friendly Schools’.

We also have a number of ‘accompanying partners’, who have come out to support their ‘partner volunteer‘ –  in some cases they might well find useful activities to undertake in the area where they are based.  André (Leandra’s husband) taught English in China, for example.   Along with André are Théa (with Johannes), Sam (with Gilly – not here yet, due to arrive Friday) and Dave (here with Janet).   It makes for an interesting mix overall, a mix of ages, backgrounds and professional experience.   As always, living in a group has its advantages and disadvantages.  Our mutual interactions, concerning language learning, or eating etc, probably inhibit our interaction with local people a bit, but on the other hand it is reassuring in your first few days in a completely new country to share some of your experiences and feelings.  This helps with cultural acclimatisation, as long as the acculturation is not too much about the volunteer group.  We are all aware of this, and a bit frustrated that we have not yet started our work, although we recognise the sense of the language course.   Alongside of the language course, we are out and about in the streets of Kampong Cham, seeing and listening to what is going on, ordering food, shopping in the market – all of these things help in informal ways with acculturation.  All that said, I am delighted that I am starting work the week after next.  I will try to build on my two weeks’ language learning with a tutor (maybe on the ‘you teach me Khmer I teach you English’ model?) once I am settled in Phonm Penh.

Because I did not manage to complete my vaccination schedule before I left, I will have to cut short the course this week in order to go back to Phonm Penh on Friday of this week.  I will have to stay overnight in PP and come back Saturday morning.  It’s going to cost me a few pennies and two days of the language course, but I knew that whenever   the practice nurse and I worked out the schedule for vaccination in late July.  By that time it was too late!  Maybe something good will come of it, as I hope to settle my house rental contract and work out when I will get a set of keys for the place, when I am in PP this weekend.

VSO HQ, 19, 214 St Phonm Penh, Stardate 03.09.10

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)

At 39000feet

At 39000 feet…

What  a journey.  Everything worked.  Everything was on time, which was just as well as I really hadn’t left much time at Heathrow in the event of any problems with the Edinburgh flight.  The new terminal 5 was cathedral like in its size and almost empty as was the Heathrow express – maybe there are times when it is very busy but it was a strange experience to be thanked by the computerised voice for using the train on my free ride to Terminal 3 – what a setting for 1984, if we weren’t in 2010.  Terminal 3 was anything but cathedral like, unless it was a cathedral of shopping.  It was also extremely busy.  However the Thai Airways staff checked everyone in ontime and boarded us in the 747-400 efficiently.  I am so impressed with cabin crews.  What a way to make a living. The crew on the second plane are doing an 11 hour stint which starts off with serving water, peanuts and a hot towel, goes through two hot meals, sandwiches, innumerable drinks (mainly non-alcoholic!) but above all – well above all – their smiles and reassuring manner give tremendous confidence to everyone else on the plane. You would really believe that they just take for granted that they are flying more than 400 people in a metal tube weighing many tons, 39000 feet above dry land in temperatures of minus 40 degrees – they act as if they were in a street cafe in the Grassmarket on a nice day – and in addition that they seem always to be in a good mood.   What Hochschild (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emotional_labor )calls ‘emotional work’ – very difficult to keep up the face sometimes, I imagine.  I managed to shut my eyes for a few hours between about 6 and 10 our time, but really I’m just assuming I’ll stay up till about 3pm on Thursday our time (that’ll be 11pm in Phonm Penh) and try to get into the new routine straight away.  Akun chreun (that’s thanks to you and me) to the Thai Airways staff.

As I start my stint in Cambodia, I just want to say a big


to all of you over there who supported, encouraged, permitted, put up with, listened to, and helped me – you made it easy for me to do this.  I hope I am able to do something worthwhile that justifies my time here.  My blog can be found here at


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