March (& April) Madness – Catching up Part 1

So i haven’t written anything in months. By now I should probably acknowledge that blogging isn’t really my thing – or at least, blogging continuously isn’t. However i’m still going to try to tell you a bit about the past 4 to 5 months here in Cambodia.

Midterm Seminar in Kampot – March

Every “weltwärts” participant agrees to visit three seminars. One before the stay abroad, as preparation, a second one, halfway through the year abroad, to reflect on experiences and talk about what’s to come, and the last one, after ones return, to discuss living back in Germany.

The Midterm Seminar took place in Kampot, one of my favorite places in Cambodia.

Together with participants from “Brot für die Welt”, “Mission eine Welt” and “Banyan Tree e.V.” we, that being the other four Red Cross volunteers and me, spent a week living in bungalows right by the river, talking about our experiences with Cambodian society and culture, our work placements and our expectations for the next months. Most of the other volunteers were also placed within organisations in Cambodia but some were also working in Thailand and Malaysia.

It was great to meet so many new people that all made similar experiences and to share views and opinions on our volunteer service with each other. Fortunately a bunch of the other volunteers also works in Phnom Penh, so we didn’t have to say goodybe to them after that one short week.

Vacation in Vietnam – April

During the Khmer New Year holiday, Emilly, Melli (a former SCAO volunteer) and me traveled through Vietnam. On our way we met up with Cecile (another former volunteer) and Steffen, a German friend of ours.

Emilly and me started our journey by bus from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), where we met Melli. From there we went to Mui Ne, then Hoi An, Hanoi and Halong Bay and back again.

While in Vietnam we managed to use every possible way of transport there was. We walked, rode bycicles and motos, drove in cars, rode trains and busses, made a boat trip and travelled by plane.

Even though we were constantly on the move (about 2300 km back and forth) i really enjoyed Vietnam and its diversity. In  HCMC Emilly and me were fascinated by the fast and, in comparison to Cambodia, quite developed city. In Mui Ne we were able to hang out at the beach – even though it was super windy – and visit some desert like sand dunes. We were also introduced to Vietnamese hospitals when Melli injured her foot.

Hoi An is an old chinese trade city. While there we felt like we travelled back in time. Lots and lots of lampions, beautiful bridges, tiny alleys and traditional chinese music. It was by far our favorite spot on the journey. Unfortunately we didn’t have much time to explore Hanoi, but we had some delicious Vietnamese coffee in one of its endless coffee shops and fantastic food. From Hanoi we booked a two day cruise through Halong Bay, north of Hanoi. Once we reached Halong Bay, we were quite disappointed with the foggy weather, but nevertheless the bay was spectacular and we had a great time on the boat.

After 12 days of eating Pho, drinking Vietnamese coffee, not learning a singe word of Vietnamese and praising Vietnams infrastructure, Emilly and me headed back to Phnom Penh.

It was great to visit Vietnam and leave Cambodia for a while. It made me appreciate a lot of things in Cambodia and also helped me to change my view on Cambodia (and Vietnam as well) a bit, take a step back from my loving, forgiving opinion before. Even though i enjoyed my trip to Vietnam immensely, i’m so glad i’ve chosen to spend my year abroad in Cambodia.

 

Moving into my first apartment – April

Before heading off to Vietnam for our vacation, Emilly and me started to search for apartments to rent. We both had made the decision to move out of SCAO and decided to move to Phnom Penh together.

I’ve absolutely loved my months living at SCAO, but after 8 months of not having my own room, much less my own bed and sharing a bathroom with 16 children it was time for me to move from the village to the city, into an apartment with doors. In addition there are just a lot more things to do in the city and you are closer to more things than out in the village.

Emilly and me found an apartment close to the Russian Market, in the south of Phnom Penh, that we really liked and could affort. We signed the lease shortly before our vacation and told them that we’d move in when we came back from Vietnam.

We came back on a Tuesday evening, worked Wednesday, Thursday and Friday and were planning on moving on Saturday. Friday evening Emilly called me and asked why we shouldn’t move in right now. I had no idea why not, so we packed our bags and made our way to our new apartment. The first night was spent cleaning and planning.

Now, after already living here for nearly 3 months, i’m so glad we moved. At first i wasn’t really sure, about leaving the village and my family at SCAO, but i still see them everyday at work, so it’s fine. It’s great to have your own room, your own fridge and most of all, your own huge balcony. Even though it’s not always easy and i feel like i have to learn a looooot of new things with me now living on my own, it feels great.

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Kampot, Kep and Koh Tonsay

Starting last Wednesday i had my first days off in Cambodia and the chance to travel through the country for a bit.

Together with six other german volunteers I visited the small town kampot, which is located in the south of Cambodia, for three days. I was so happy to leave the crowded and chaotic Phnom Penh for a while and enjoy the lush green ricefields, fresh air and beautiful landscape in the countryside.

Our adventure started with the bus drive to Kampot. The whole time, which was about 4 to 5 hours, I looked out of the window and watched motos, small huts and some mountains pass by. I was simply amazed by all the things I saw next to the street or even the street itself. Because the road was rather a dirt road than an official highway, whole villages next to it were completely covered in red dust and there was no other colour to be seen for miles. Other times you saw nothing else but water, some small boats and palm trees due to the floodings of the rainy season.

Being in Phnom Penh you sometimes forget that there is so much more out there in Cambodia and that there actually is a wonderful countryside. (Don’t get me wrong, I like living in Phnom Penh and having the hustle and bustle of the big town around me, but it lets you forget about the rest of this beautiful country quite easily.)

When we bought the bus tickets we had hoped to arrive in Kampot quite early so we would have some time to explore the city. However upon arriving in Kampot it was quite late already, so we only checked into a guesthouse, had some dinner and went to bed pretty early.

The next day, we decided to rent some motos and explore the surroundings of Kampot. Originally we wanted to find some caves called Phnom Dschnuk, but when we found out that we missed the road by ca. 5 miles we decided to visit some caves that were closer to us. We ended up at the Phnom Sorsir, which consists of a small pagoda on top of a hill, a cave that contains a huge rock that looks like an elephant (it’s called the White Elephant Cave) and a bat cave. We had a guide that showed us everything and led us into the caves, which was pretty risky at some points, considering we were all wearing flip flops and didn’t carry any flash lights with us.

From the top of Phnom Sorsir we had a wonderful view towards the coast, the Elephant Mountains and the town of Kep. The sun was shining and you saw rice fields, the sea and on the horizon the Vietnamese island Phu Quoc.

Since it was Leons Birthday we decided to all go out for dinner. Nearly every one of us ordered way too expensive pizza and was disappointed afterwards; however the night was saved with the birthday cake we got for Leon and later on a wonderful night out on a bungalow right next to the river in Kampot.

On Saturday we wanted to go up to Bokor Mountain, from which apparently you have the best view over Cambodia and can see all the way to Thailand. We knew that the way was really long so we decided to rent a car. Just renting the car was an interesting experience itself. No need to show a license or anything, just leave a passport and sign a receipt.

Driving a car in Cambodia was new to all of us but we managed to get to Bokor Mountain quite well. Unfortunately it was really foggy and only ten minutes up the mountain all we could see was fog and the fading lights of the car in front of us. Due to the fact, that we had paid so much for the car, we didn’t want to turn back around so we went continued driving up the mountain and passing what felt like a 100 serpentines.

After a while we came across a huge waterfall. There was a parking spot and an enormous visitors center but there were nearly no visitors beside us at all, which was due to the heavy rain that fell down on us, once we got out of the car. Ignoring the rain and the fog, we went to see the waterfall. It was a wonderful to listen to the loud water crashing down and seeing the steam coming up from the valley. We were completely soaked in water, when we came back to the car and decided not to go to the top of the mountain, and instead to go back to the guesthouse, change our clothes and have some dinner.

The next morning we left Kampot early and took a cab to Kep. Kep is a small town directly at the coast. It is really widespread and doesn’t really have a city center. During high season Kep is probably crowded with tourists, however while we were there it reminded us more of a ghost town. The cab driver brought us to Kep Market, because we thought that the market would be the place in town with the most going on. When we got out of the cab, we found out that the market was the most deserted place in town with absolutely no one being around. We still managed to get some food and decided to leave Kep without staying there for a night and going directly to Koh Tonsay, a small island just off the coast of Kep.

30 minutes later, backpacks and ourselves drenched in water and completely shaken by the rough sea, we arrived on Koh Tonsay. And again we were alone. Besides us, there were only a few people that live on Koh Tonsay on the island, however not a single tourist to be seen. It was wonderful. We rented two bungalows right next to the beach and went for a short hike across the island. Sunday and Monday we didn’t really do anything else besides sleeping in hammocks on the beach, watching sunsets, swimming and eating pancakes with fruits.

Koh Tonsay is probably not the perfect paradise island, however you have some simple bungalows with a bed, candles and a small bathroom, some food shacks that offer everything you need, a nice long beach, palm trees and hammocks lining the beach. For us it was perfectly fine. Plus we had a really nice time getting to know some of the people living on the island.

On Tuesday, the weather finally got better but we left Koh Tonsay to take the bus back to Phnom Penh. Again the bus ride took about 6 hours and we arrived back at the center really late. Tomorrow school will start again and everything around here will be back to normal.

Pictures and posts on Pchum Ben and my daily life at SCAO will follow soon.