This was my first school expedition that I have led, and it was by far one of the coolest trips and jobs I have done to date. I would travel to Cambodia initially on a recce and logistics mission with the young people arriving about 9 days later. I travelled to Phnom Penh, Koh Kong and back to Siem Reap. In this initial time on my own I met some cool people and it was great to get back to one of my passions, travelling. I then visited a few more areas with the young people, and everywhere appeared to be completely different from the last, hence the title of my blog.
Vietnamese Floating Village
I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, I just expected something to be floating. I was a little surprised to be honest that it wasn’t quite as impressive as I had imagined in the floating sense, but the stilted village was amazing. The shear height and the fact you could see through quite a lot of the floorboards gave me the shivers. The boat ride in was slow enough to allow the full appreciation of the craftsmanship of the village and how it had been put together. The kids playing in the river made me wonder how long it would take a westerner to become severely ill after swimming in the same water. Annoyingly I didn’t take enough money and, as per usual in most developing countries, I got ripped off and could only afford a coke.
Heading back I found it impressive that the villagers survived as fishermen. This was probably helped by the mass tourism from Siem Reap heading down in the peak of the season.
The Bug Cafe
This was definitely a highlight of my journey to Cambodia. I have heard so many stories about how insects are extremely good for you and that they may become a part of our diets in the future as the world population continues to grow. But as it is their culture, I felt compelled to get stuck in. Though with the lads from Guildford, I felt it had to be done properly in a restaurant to savour the moment. The lads ordered their dishes, some choosing to share, and one or two not really vibing with the idea at all. We tried scorpions, tarantula, silk worms, water bugs and a variety of other things. I have to say the water bug was quite honestly the most disgusting thing there. But the rest of it was great, it just wasn’t that filling. I highly recommend giving this place a go.
Angkor Wat and Phnom Krom
Of all the places in the world, this has to have always been on my ‘to do list’. It is truly amazing, and when I first saw the ruins of Ta Prohm on Tomb Raider all those years ago, I was sold. I couldn’t quite believe the size of the complex, it’s enormous, with temples dotted around for miles. The main ones though were great, but I had to get Ta Prohm in, and I definitely wanted to visit the main temple. They were a must. Walking around on my own whilst the young people did their thing was very liberating, I was almost annoyed at the fact that I didn’t know how this venue was truly used. It is so massive, and obviously historians can give us some idea of its glory days, but not being able to see the venue in use all those hundreds of years ago is sad.
The craftsmanship of the masonry is enviable. Just the amount of work spent on the individual banisters throughout the temple alone is amazing, with Nagas at the end of each banister protecting the temple. The temple as well with all of its ornate carvings, depicting stories, gods, battles, etc. were awe inspiring. To have anyone in the western world commit to this level of skill and work would require incredible amounts of time and money.
Phnom Krom is just south of Siem Reap and I had a day off just before the young people arrived. I decided I wanted to rent a bike to get myself down there to check out the ruins. I hired a Giant bike, which was very easy to ride and well maintained. I set off on the road down towards the temple which was approximately 10km away. In all honesty I have never told my mum I cycled on the roads in Cambodia, as I think she would flip her bacon. I was a little scared in all honesty, but it was part of the adventure.
I got down there in good time, and realised that I needed an Angkor pass to get to the temple. On doing some research on the internet, I realised that if I waited until 5:30pm, I would be able to enter for free as the guard would leave and there is no security or fencing. I circumnavigated the hill through a couple of small villages beneath Phnom Krom, which were really nice. I got plenty of waves from the locals and one or two tried to start up a conversation with the crazy western fool on a bike.
Getting up to the temple and looking over the flat plains to Tonle Sap was truly amazing. I had a good look round the temple and befriended some local kids who were doing their best to get in my way. So I offered to buy them an ice cream each, this did the trick. The cycle back to Siem Reap was pleasant, but the humidity had definitely stepped up a notch. It was a great little day out.
I am not a massive fan of museums, and I guess I never had the introduction I needed to feel like I could appreciate them. When the young people arrived in Siem Reap they were keen to explore this venue. Hiring a guide was quite possibly the best thing we could have done to seriously emphasise the shear violence of this conflict, but also to reaffirm how recent it was. The guide was a survivor with extensive injuries, and he started with a story about himself and the injuries and torment that the war had caused him.
We went through several sheds initially talking about the hand weapons and munitions used during the conflict. Also who was involved, the leaders, the victims and the locations throughout Cambodia. It was also enlightening to know that the killing fields outside of Phnom Penh were one of many, I had always naively been of the belief this was all around one area. It was an emotional introduction to this conflict and it just made me wonder what S21 and the killing fields would be like.
I won’t go into detail about the vehicles as without a guide to explain their history it would be just a list of damaged military vehicles, but the guide showed us things that was evidence of the them having been used and destroyed by their enemies. It was an afternoon of reflection for the young people and us.
When the young people arrived we were to get food in Siem Reap and the next day we would be heading straight to Ban Lung. This was going to be interesting as there was the highest threat of malaria and we were heading into the poorest area of the country. The reason for our journey was that the young people would be assisting at two schools over 4 days for United World Schools. The young people had also worked hard on preparing their resources prior to their journey and I think they were quite keen to offload to reduce the weight of their bags.
When we arrived we headed for the amazing Tree Top Eco Lodge. I was majorly impressed. Though there was no A/C, it was forgivable. After having our dinner nearby we retired for the night. The following day though came with some stories. One of the cabins that the young people had stayed in, apparently had a rat crawl out of the toilet in the night, which terrified them enough that they went and stayed in another cabin. I can imagine that would have been an experience for me at 16 years old as well. But then again, I was more interested in not seeing any spiders.
We set out in 4x4s across quite rugged tracks of the NE of Cambodia, it was great scenery but that of jungle. I could only imagine what delights lay in the tree-line. I wasn’t in a rush to find out. We made our way to the Mekong river at Ratanakiri and I was still majorly impressed that I had full signal with 4G. We got on to our long boats to head up stream to Tien Kram. This would be our first school. The school and the teaching staff were amazing and very appreciative of the young people and how they engaged with the kids.
Whilst here I also got my first taste of overseas first aid and general health. Weirdly I had been looking forward to this. Two had acquired stomach issues, one unable to go 15 min without needing the toilet and the other vomiting on command for a short while. I felt confident in my abilities and quickly sorted them both out over the next 24 hours. However on the last day in the village, I was approached by one of the young people holding his arm. My first thought ‘insect, spider or snake bite’. I was a little worried, but thankfully he revealed a very neat 1.5″ laceration to his arm caused by a metal box, thankfully a clean piece of metal. We steri-stripped the wound, and dressed it, my only worry now was infection. We managed this effectively for several days and I am proud to say it healed very well.
On our way to the next school we were given some information that the next school was going to be challenging by another group and yes, they were, and I don’t mean the children. The teachers were a completely different beast and I felt for the young people. The children were definitely from a more poverty stricken area, and they were travelling a far shorter distance than the kids from the other school. This school though appeared to have a little more tradition surrounding it with small huts on stilts, which related to their marriage traditions.
One night camping under the school in my hammock, I enjoyed the tranquility of the night. However I learnt the hard way, always have a light on at night when walking around. I was desperate for the toilet, so decided the moonlight was enough. I headed a short way from the school and started to take care of my business. I felt a shooting pain through my right foot, it was horrendous, then another and another, I must have received 4 stings. I hurriedly switched on my torch, and noticed that I had walked in to a procession of ants. I don’t know what they were, but it bloody hurt. I rubbed my feet for about 30 min, trying to ease the pain. The pain eventually died off.
Our last full day in Banlung was spent at an old volcanic crater, now a lake. This was called Lake Yeak Laom. The lads had great day out here. The water was truly amazing as were the tree lined edges. As expected this is heavily impacted by tourism, but just walking a little further than the average lazy tourist we found a pier to ourselves. What a way to finish our time up in Banlung.
Easily one of the weirdest capital cities I have ever been to. I can only imagine this is all to do with the war. The city really lacks any kind of character and is obviously trying to find itself after the devastating consequences of the genocide. A lot of the older buildings do not appear to be being repaired and others have become severely derelict. As I attempted to find my hostel whilst here alone before the young people, and readily came across people attempting to sell a whole range of narcotics. It was a pleasant change from the drug jobs I regularly attended back in Piccadilly Gardens in Manchester. I found my accommodation and for $6 per night it was amazing. The Panorama Mekong Hostel, run by an Icelandic chap, who also sold beer at an exceptionally low cost, $0.75. Naturally I had a couple and got chatting to some interesting characters.
Killing Fields and S21
Now with the young people in tow, we headed for a range of destinations, the Royal Palace, which appeared to need significant money investing in its upkeep. S21 and the Killing Fields, probably the most horrendous and emotionally charged historical sight I have ever been to. We got the audio tour on the Killing Fields and a tour guide for S21. The experience was profoundly saddening and terrifying. I couldn’t believe the detail and the sight of the Killing Fields was merely one of many. S21 was an old school, and it was turned in to a prison and venue for torture by the Khmer Rouge. It was also extremely emotional and it is something I personally find very hard to comprehend why our fellow man would contemplate such horrendous acts of violence. This is definitely something that will stay with me forever.
Seeing Hands was another little tourist attraction that the young people were keen to explore. A massage by blind practitioners. And when my masseur walked straight into a table on entering the room, I was confident he was blind. They provided me with a gown, which wasn’t flattering, as you can tell by the photo below. I had also lost about a stone whilst in Cambodia. The masseur entered the room again and started on my legs, the brutality was that of the physios I use in the UK, it was great. I left feeling significantly better in my muscles.
Other random destinations in Phnom Penh
The lads also decided to change their getup, opting for a daring and somewhat bohemian colour scheme. I had to laugh as they wore it proudly across town. 3 of them had been dying for some reason to see the North Korean Embassy and in all honesty I am glad there appeared to be no one at home to see 3 lads peering in to their grounds dressed in the latest designer wear. I do have to admit compared to the other embassies, it was a bit weird.
The Royal Palace was another venue I visited on my own. A place that could be a brilliant tourist destination, but let down by the need for restoration, organisation and appropriate charges at the gate. It was expensive per person and you definitely need a guide. There does seem to be a reoccurring theme across Phnom Penh for this lack of commitment to sustain their tourism for the long term, money just being made to line pockets.
A town way out on the coast near the border of Thailand, I visited this place twice. Once on my own and the other time with the young people. The venue would be the start of our jungle trek. I have never done a jungle trek before, so decided to take a single day out with a few other tourists, two from Britain, one from France and the other from Spain. They were a nice bunch. We headed up Prek Kao Yor a tributary of several rivers, in a little boat that was quite charming. It was great weather and we appeared to be getting on great with each other. The day in the well-walked jungle appeared to be no stretch, bar the occupied spider web I walked into and I anticipated nothing more on the trek for 4 days. This should be a breeze and couldn’t wait.
Arriving now with the lads, the monsoon was definitely making itself known. It absolutely binned it down with rain on the day of departure to the start of the trail. I had read plenty of SAS books about jungle training and warfare as a kid and not one person said it was pleasant. They were right and it wasn’t a breeze. The rivers were raging everywhere and the guides constantly worked to build bridges to escort us across streams. The rain was incessant. We arrived at a point where we could go no further. I headed to the river they said was impassable with the guides. Confirmation, it was impassable. It looked terrifying.
We headed back to the camp, when the head guide received the call that helped the situation become slightly worse. The kit and other guides had been postponed due to the weather. We sat there for 3 hours unable to do anything except attempt to stay dry and warm. I had brought two tarps with me, which we erected to provide a degree of shelter.
The other guides eventually arrived and began immediately to decimate the forest around us to build a camp. They got a fire going for cooking and provided us with much needed enthusiasm that had been dwindling since we stopped. We ate well every day and slept as well as you can in stuff that spends most of its time as a minimum damp. The jungle environment is truly impressive, but I am in all honesty not in a rush to return by any means. It is easily the harshest environment I have been in yet and I have no interest in returning yet. I can only imagine what it is like to travel though secondary jungle, this I believe being well trodden primary.
Kep and Kampot
This was by far my favourite part of the expedition. I normally enjoy all aspects in various ways, but the lads hit all the right notes with this part. We headed in to Kampot, to a hostel that a lad of a particular skill set had picked. What I didn’t realise is that we were staying there for 3 nights and one was a Friday. I had missed the bit on the website that basically said, major party every Friday night. I sat down with the lads and discussed this in detail and I feel it was managed extremely well. The lads had a great time still. The venue was called Banyan Tree Hostel, I recommend this for both accommodation and partying, though the DJ was a little naff.
However to the more exciting parts around here, there is tonnes to do. We visited Kep for a walk round the mountain side, which was a pleasant walk and allowed great views and opportunity to chat with the lads about their trip. We checked out a Kampot Pepper plantation where we also ate, called La Plantation. The most amazing place though, and I think the lads would wholeheartedly agree, is Arcadia Water Park. This facility was a gem. The park itself was on the Mekong, swings, slides, Russian swing, diving platform and inner tubes for chilling. It was a risk assessment nightmare, but we got through it with the lads of yay’s and nay’s. Which in all honesty was them applying themselves maturely to the various activities. This was a great day out and I highly recommend this place to travellers to visit, but you can also stay here if you need accommodation.
Lastly, having travelled the country for 6 weeks by tuk-tuk and bus, I was ready for a new form of transport. I had caught a glimpse of a train somewhere and I wanted to lets say ‘encourage’ the lads to book this instead of another bus. It didn’t take much encouragement in all honesty and it was sorted, providing us with great views of the Cambodian landscape. I thought it was a great way to finish the last leg of our journey back to Phnom Penh. Not to mention quicker, more comfortable, cool due to the A/c conditioning and smoother.
What an amazing country and after everything this country has suffered it is truly impressive that the people are so happy and hospitable. I read a book during my journey that my mum had purchased for some reading and I highly recommend it to anyone, as it is an easy read and informative for a number of reasons.
I also spoke with Walter on Twitter briefly, a truly helpful and humble chap from Australia.
For my efforts with the lads I was greeted at Heathrow by grateful parents. They shook my hand and thanked me for posts on social media and my contribution to their sons’ expedition. They handed me two bags full of presents, they quickly noted that none of them were for me but for my daughter. I had posted so many pictures whilst away that one picture I had received of my daughter, Dora, had been seen by the parents they bought her a load of presents. She enjoyed them, and still uses her bag today for packed lunches and picnics. The parents then handed me an envelope with some vouchers inside for Cotswold and John Lewis and a small box of golden cufflinks as a keepsake. I was extremely honoured and proud of my efforts and pleased they felt so strongly about it.