After months of planning, at the end of November 2019 we are finally off on our round the world tour. The first stop is Singapore for a couple of days to catch up with old friends and then we head on to Cambodia to see the progress that United World Schools has made since Vicky visited four years ago and to visit the school that we sponsored - Kiri Vongsa.
We are meeting up in Siem Reap with other donors and decide to arrive a couple of days early to visit the famous temples. We were last here on a family holiday in 2006 and the town has grown considerably since then. There also seem to be more Asian tourists and fewer Europeans. We stay in the charming and convenient Lynnaya Resort - small but with lovely modern rooms, friendly staff and a good rooftop bar and restaurant. Friends John and Kate arrive the same evening and we plan our trips for the next couple of days. Day 1 is market followed by a few of the temples by tuktuk. We have been around the big Angkor Wat temple so opt to visit some of the other temples in the main complex. Sadly you can't get a half day pass so we shell out USD 37 each to get in.
We start at the famous Ta Prohm temple (top above). This huge crumbling structure still has jungle trees growing out of it. Every surface is carved with figures and decoration. Built in the 12th-13th C it was originally a Buddhist monastery. Ta Keo (middle above) is imposing but much less ornate. It was dedicated around 1000 and building stopped before it could be decorated. I had forgotten how vertigenous it was climbing those steep narrow steps. The Bayon (above bottom) is also very well known with huge Buddha faces carved on its 54 towers. This was the last great temple to be built at Angkor in the late 12th or early 13th C. It is nearly 5pm and the guards are closing up, but as we leave a Cambodian wedding couple rush in with their friends for photos. With the light fading our jolly tuktuk driver takes us round by the Angkor Wat lake for a view of the main temple before delivering us back to our hotel.
About 70km from Siem Reap is the Beng Mealea temple. Not much is known about this largely unrestored temple although it is so similar to Angkor Wat that it is assumed to have been built at the same time. The huge piles of fallen columns and cloisters make you wonder how this huge civilisation collapsed in the 15thC after the Siamese invasions and colonisation. We had thought that it was too far for the Chinese tourists but we were wrong!
After lunch in a roadside restaurant - good food although a coachload of Chinese arrive and eat a whole meal and leave in 20 minutes! - we head back to the main Phnom Pehn road and then south toward the Tonlé Sap lake. Kampong Khleang is a large fishing village with all the houses on high stilts to cope with the rainy season flooding. Families are smoking small fish as we arrive - apparently a skewer of 10 fish fetches $3 so this is a profitable business. As we head down river towards the lake we watch farmers setting up temporary houses (top right) to oversee their planting on the flood plains that are emerging as the water level on the lake drops. They will stay here for 4 or 5 months while the crops grow and then return to their villages on land. Just before the river reaches the lake we see a floating community, including school and village hall with small kids playing on houseboats. Then the huge expanse of lake. Fishing boats head out with their nets while other boats come in laden with provisions from other villages.
On Sunday 1 December we head out of Siem Reap with the UWS minivan and pickup. The roads are good and empty as we pass small towns and villages, farms and orchards. After 3hr 40m we stop at Preah Vihear for lunch in a modern restaurant. Heading out of town we pass big new Chinese sugar factory complete with houses for the Chinese factory workers. About two hours later we reach a long concrete bridge over the Mekong river where the folks in the pickup leave us to stay in Stung Treng and visit schools there the next day. We continue on to Banlung and our modern hotel by the lake.
On Monday the real adventure starts as we leave the rest of the group and head off with Bunthynn, our guide and a regional education officer and our driver Panyang. Both speak good English. The tarmac then dirt roads are good as far as Vunsei where we cross the river on a small ferry. From here the roads become tracks and get progressively worse. These are impassible in the wet season and more suited to a motorbike than 4X4 the rest of the time! We sink in the mud and pull ourselves out with our winch. Bunthynn jumps in and out of the vehicle to cut branches and, at one point, a tree that has falled across the track. In places farmers have put up fences that encroach on the track making it even harder to get through. When we reach another UWS school, Sopsith, we leave the pickup and transfer to a long tailed boat for the final 20 minutes up river. Even this is eventful as the others have to get in the water three times to tow the boat over rapids.
At Kiri Vongsa the pupils and teachers are lined up along the path to the school and we make a royal procession greeting the clapping kids as we go. In the school the head of the village, local policeman and headmaster welcome us and the children shout "welcome to Kiri Vongsa". After more speeches we are left to have lunch as the children go back to their huts for their break.
At 1.30 the kids are back for afternoon school. It is the first day of the new school year so the first year is looking a bit dazzled. New exercise books are handed out. The school has three classrooms and a library for the six classes. Some children are still helping their parents with the rice harvest but the classrooms are still pretty full. Older kids are writing and reading while the young ones learn their letters and numbers. At the end of the lesson a teacher strikes a gong - in fact a piece of metal from a crashed US bomber that was salvaged nearby. The kids assemble in the central schoolroom and sing songs with Bunthynn - including "heads, shoulders, knees and toes"! "You say that you don't know any English but you do" jokes Bunthynn. The children go out to play and when they are back Vicky hands out some gifts and receives a fine basket (Kapha) in return.
The children go back for their final lesson of the day and then school ends. Our footballs prove very popular and a game is soon underway behind the school. Other kids play volleyball while the younger children play on the swings and slide. Bunthynn persuades Vicky to swim in the river with some of the girls - great amusement as we have no swimming gear so she goes in fully clothed.
The UWS team cook us dinner, we play games with some of the older children who have returned to see us. Fortunately the school has a few LED lightbulbs and a solar charged battery so we can see despite me forgetting our head torches! A couple of teachers come back from the village with a jar of rice wine. We are not sure how this works - you pour water into the fermented rice and then suck the liquid through wooden straws. It tastes yeasty but quite drinkable. Our hosts retire to the teacher's house to finish the wine and we turn in for the night.
After a chilly night in our hammocks with a noisy gecko keeping us awake we are up before the children start arriving at 6.30. Bunthynn has brought a bright orange toaster but when we rig it up to the generator it does't work. We make do with egg sandwiches and tea/coffee. The teachers join us and tuck into the jam - a first for some of them. At 7 the kids line up for assembly and sing (the national anthem?) as the flag is raised. The the head teacher and Bunthynn take them through exercises and singing. At 8 we say our goodbyes and receive another royal send off before a couple of the girls show us around the village. Some of the huts are desperately poor - only about half of the villages can farm their own land - the others have to go a long way away for slash and burn farming in the forest where they can grow barely enough rice to feed the family, let along sell at market.
The trip back to Banlung is easier as we cleared the trail the day before but the boat down the rapids is equally scary! We stop at three more UWS schools where term is getting underway like at Kiri Vongsa. At one school we are excited to meet a comunity teacher who speaks good English and was at Kiri Vongsa school when Vicky was here four years ago. After a swim in the crater lake at Banlung we have dinner with other UWS staff and donors before the long drive back to Siem Reap the next day. We whizz along in the Lexus pickup on empty roads, occasionally breaking for tractors lurching out onto the road or lazy dogs. The landscape is mostly flat with the odd tree covered escarpments and rocky outcrops. Rice farms predominate with orchards of oranges, cashews and apples. Closer to Siem Reap we pass lots of carts loaded with sacks of rice - farmers taking their harvest to the rice mill or market.
Visiting the schools has been a great experience and the Cambodians have all been charming and friendly. Cambodia is still a very poor country with much of the population still dependent on rice farming. Those who can learn to read and write, and potentially go on to secondary school, have a huge opportunity to improve their lives. The economy is growing and jobs are available. We are very impressed with the contribution that UWS is making and the thousands of children who they reach in some of the poorest parts of the country. There are still challenges - for example how to educate children who go deep into the forest to farm with their parents - but the progress made in the last 5-6 years is terrific. Click here or on the schoolgirl below for a photo gallery of our trip.