Tuesday 4 August 2015

Cambodia Volunteering : 1. House Build #1, The Floating Villages of Kompong Khleang and a Monk named Kosol

Soo-a s’day! That’s ‘hello’ in Khmer the local language here in Cambodia.

                                     Bangkok – about to board the funky mini plane to Cambodia….

                 The ancient Kingdom of Cambodia! finally London - Mumbai - Bangkok - Siem Reap

Here I am in Siem Reap! the city of temples, scooters, tuk tuks and absolutely no driving laws! or minimum age to ride a scooter it would seem too!

.....Well my adventures in the ancient Kingdom of Cambodia got quickly underway finally with my first task with NGO Volunteer Building Cambodia starting directly the next day arriving in Siem Reap. I was taken to the Kouk Phnour Village about 15 kms outside of Siem Reap in the province, to help finish off a house, other volunteers had started earlier in the week. It was a slightly different method of building to what VBC normally do but the house had been funded by a local hotel (The Royal Angkor Resort) and us volunteers for the family to have a well, toilet and brand new house. The house was started with aid from the Village Chief, Commune Chief and neighbours, however they have run out of money and were unable to complete the project.

There are five people in this family - a single mum, who lost her husband five months ago and whose body is paralysed on one side, and her four children – only two go to school and she can barely walk without the aid of a walking stick.

Sinn, a local Khmer man is the founder of the NGO and received a gift of a hammer, nails and five pairs of builders gloves as a gift from me to help with his builds as well as pens, paper, sports equipment and clothing from England. He had been in construction for ten years and knows a thing or two about building houses and has run the NGO for two years with volunteer donations funding the house materials, supplies any extras needed to construct the build. The final touches of the house involved us, hammering Kadar wood into the sides for the wall and climbing a make shift scaffolding to affix the Kadar for the upper roof – the wood was pretty tough to hammer into so a big workout and lots of bent nails!

The NGO carefully select a needy Cambodian family through the Village or Commune Chief but are not always trusting of them as it could lead to corruption or unfair selecting of parties who are not living below the living standard or have a Khmer ‘Poor Card’ from another NGO. Sinn goes and interviews the families himself to decide where our funds will go and if it is necessary for us to spend a week building a brand new house them them…it is not hard to find a needy family out here as VBC build houses every week for poor families without adequate shelter.

A collection of photos from the House Build #1 in Kouk Phnour Village with a team of Brits, Aussies and Cambodians - I call the little red house....

 Three of the four Cambodian children watching us build their new home...happy to give us hammers and nails!

Once the house is finished, it is then blessed by Buddhist monks who make offerings of…Red Bull Energy Drink and….Cigarettes….interesting whilst they chant and flick holy water with o the tenants and to wish good luck and prosperity to the family by tying a red bracelet around their wrist. We then hand over household gifts as donations and the all important key and padlock to the house as it is now blessed and open to be moved into by the family – so rewarding to see the look of gratitude in their eyes to have a safe home of their own...well worth the sweat, blisters and sore thumbs!   

Buddhist House Blessing

The keys are handed over and the house is theirs!

The Floating Villages of Kompong Khleang

During my first week here I took a trip out to the see the floating villages of Kompong Khleang, the furthest floating village about one hour out of Siem Reap, painfully having to ignore begging children with handmade fishes for sale, we hired a boat to take us through the bamboo skyscrapers and out onto the Tonle Sap lake to see how civilians live on floating homes – being the rainy season, a lot of fisherman were out pulling swamped tree branches out of their nets and throwing them over the sides. Tradesman would meet to trade goods in the centre of the lake and local children attended classes on the ‘floating school’ which had been donated by a German organization….

Here’s a sneak peek of life in the floating villages…

Angkor is promoted with great pride in Cambodia, with its image and name adorning everything from the beer, cigarettes and even boats!

 During the week also, I went to visit The House of Peace Association close to the city centre of Siem Reap. Children of ten years old or such learn how to make Cambodian leather Hindu Shadow Puppets or ‘sbei tuoi’ in Khmer which are a traditional ancient art form exclusive to Cambodia which were used for entertainment. I bought a shadow puppet of a ‘Hanuman’ which is a Hindu Monkey and two prints on rice paper of a Hindu dancing lady and a beautiful print of the Great Temple Angkor. They are carved from stone initially and then painted and printed on this rice paper from Thailand – I just thought they were beautiful and all the proceeds from The House of Peace Association goes to the children’s development and to Buddhist monks to build what they call ‘Peace Houses’.

Cambodian Hindu Shadow Puppet - 'Hanuman' 

Angkor Wat

A Monk named Kosol

Across from where I’m staying in Siem Reap, there is a Pagoda with a temple and giant Buddhist shrine. I noticed nuns dressed in white robes chanting in a nearby prayer room and sat nearby to listen to their practice and chanting. I then heard a friendly hello and saw a young Buddhist Monk standing against the stone wall with his dog. His name was Kosol and was happy to chat to me about his monkhood. Buddhism is a very accepting and open religion or philosophy, and he had been a monk since he was twelve years old and you have to prove in character that you have the right temperament and attitude to be a monk and live in the Pagoda. The more bad tempered you are the longer it will take for you to be a monk and your family are also assessed and background looked into as criteria for monk hood. In the rainy season they pray and practice three times a day in the pagoda and pointing your bare feet at a monk or anybody in Cambodia for that matter, leaving chopsticks vertical in a bowl ( ‘V’ is a symbol of death) and being touched by a woman is a big no no! 

Seeing as I spoke fluent English, he told me about an NGO he runs called ‘Khmer for Khmer Organisation’ (KFKO) For Orphans and Poor Children in a village called Teaksen Tbong Village on the outskirts of town. He invited me to come help the Khmer teachers with teaching the orphans and poor children with their English as they virtually have no volunteers to help the teachers. As I couldn’t touch him, I couldn’t ride on the motorbike with him, so he used his mobile phone to call one of his Khmer teachers to swing by and take me up through the chaos of Siem Reap city, through the puddles to this quiet village community of Teaksen Tbong. A small compound of five wooden classrooms with no walls, wooden benches and slanting whiteboards and dorm rooms with twenty six orphans living there. Local poor children also come to the community to receive free English lessons of the Khmer teachers but it’s always helpful to have a native English speaker who can speak the right pronunciations (even the teacher was pronouncing the letter ‘X’ wrong so I spontaneously helped with a ten child class of 8 – 13 year olds, saying the letters X, Y, Z and drawing pictures of X-rays, Yo-Yo’s and Zebras! 

        Cambodian kids are very happy and were even happy enough to take a sneaky post class snap! I will probably go buy them some donations of exercise books and pens for their school work in town soon...

It’s the rainy season here at the moment so there tends to be humidity and downpours in the afternoon/evening. When class finished after the hour, black foreboding clouds hovered above as I bid ‘Lee hai’ to the orphans and children leaving the compound. The Khmer teacher was a student at the University, so he dropped me off back in Siem Reap centre on his way to study but not without stopping off at a roadside shop to buy me this great banana yellow poncho to go speeding down the highway with!

So…it’s been quite an eventful, surprising first week already in Cambodia. Have started a new house build this week with a bigger team of volunteers which hopefully you will hear about.
But that pretty much just sums up my week, plenty more details and more has happened for sure but I think this blog is long enough!

Thanks for reading and till next time from Cambodia…Lee hai!  

Siem Reap, Cambodia

With Lonely Planet's Travel Guide Cambodia 

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