January 15, 2010

Goodbye to the Small Kingdom


Well, things have happened in something of a rush, the boss decided he wanted me to take my unused leave asap and I'm on a plane to Australia on Monday.  The town I am leaving is in many ways unrecognisable from the one I came to 17 months ago, the latest wonder is working street lights outside the office.

Last night I narrowly avoided a head-on collision with an unlit motorbike driving down the wrong side of the road in pitch darkness, but not soon enough to avoid a dive into the road and a lot of skin removal, so now I am faced with packing and moving out of my house in some degree of pain.  Tonight the staff are having a farewell party but I am really not up to a roudy crap Cambodian dance party, so I will take off as soon as I get on top of the last minute work.

A sample of one of the things I have been teaching staff how to do is the Indigenous People’s health newsletter at http://ipha.comxa.com/newsletter/IPHA%20RTK%20Newsletter%202%20EN.pdf

See some of you next week!


December 19, 2009

Notes From A Small Kingdom 10 - Cool Season


I am into the home stretch of my contract here, with only 6 weeks to go, and ironically am starting to get really busy as time runs out.  I have been doing much of the work of the Technical Advisor while they seek a replacement for the job, and now for a month I am acting Programme Manager in Ratanakiri.  This was meant to be a bit of a formality as most of the work that needs doing is what I am already coordinating, but it has quickly become apparent that there are plenty of urgent queries from London and the like, as well as routine staff and finance paperwork.

As a trainer I have not been much involved in operational matters, so its a challenge to open a spreadsheet and give sensible explanations for all the variances in spending and budget lines, or to draft revised targets in a project plan.  I have one advantage - I am now the longest serving expat in HU Cambodia!

Cool season has set in properly, with nights cool enough for the duvet, dust starting to fill the house, and a massive increase in the number of tourists around town.  It is a very good time to visit this part of the world.  The dust is much less than last year with the new bitumen road laid right through the town.

I've never really got over the dengue, with an endless run of infections .. the last was a flu which quickly turned my lungs to soup so that I’d wake at 3am every night unable to breathe, and cough for an hour. One night I was nearly over it, but hadn’t felt up to going to the market, so I went out to a restaurant for a feed of fresh vegetables.  The landlady hadn’t put the outside lights on and as I walked back in the front gate .. BANG – a snake latched onto my foot. I never saw what sort but as its fangs were 2cm apart it must have been a decent size.

That night was agony but by morning it was all settled.  A week later though, it swelled up and got all hot and red, probably an infection rather than venom, although its interesting to see that such tiny holes haven’t healed after a month.  I saw on tv that even highly venomous snakes don’t always inject, they prefer to save it for something edible.

Most of the staff have a bit of time-in-lieu or leave and they chose to take this week off, coincidentally its Christmas week, so while last year it was an ordinary working day this year I have no great need to be at work. I am still getting over doing the 2 way trip to Phnom Penh in 3 days last week, and not keen to get back in a bus, but if a looming sore throat doesn’t sap me too much I’ll go off in search of beaches and good food for a few days.

A couple of ‘scenes’ from the past week or so:

- Sitting on a mat in a thinly forested spot, to the right the roar of a waterfall, to the left two elephants trumpeting, in front a bunch of colleagues acting out in mime their project’s work, behind a semicircle of local indigenous people gazing on in baffled wonder.  Staff development Cambodia style.

- Last night, leading a bunch of adults and children in a sort of crazy line dancing to blasting Khmer pop under a stilt house. This was a follow on from drinks at work as a holiday farewell, great fun but can’t do it too often as it comes out of my pocket! (Later I realised the dance one was teaching the others was the Madison, so I went and put on “Nutbush City Limits” – they were unimpressed and put the Khmer dance music back on.)

I won’t put any photos in the post .. you can see some new ones in my gallery at http://www.flickr.com/photos/30375182@N05/

Well, have a good Christmas and all that, catch you next year,

October 18, 2009

Notes From A Small Kingdom 9 - Typhoon Season

Hi All,

After 2 dull months its been a busy 2 weeks. Ratanakiri is the biggest office of HU in the world and generally there three foreigners based here, the manager, a technical advisor and myself. The advisor works with the health rights advocacy project, and in 2 1/2 years they have had three, and are now looking for the fourth; while the position's vacant I'm doing some of the work, jobs like redrafting the statutes for a local organisation they're forming, and teaching them to write press releases and articles.

2 weeks back someone found a funding opportunity with AusAID, but with only a week until it closed. Writing a proposal usually takes 3-10 weeks and involves a lot of drafting and circulating, but we had 5 days and I was leading with almost no knowledge of the details of the existing projects, so I had my work cut out. It was a joint effort with our team in Mondulkiri province, so a couple of us jumped in a 4WD and headed off there. In the dry with local knowledge you can go straight there on a motorbike in 6-7 hours - its something of a legendary trip. But in the monsoon it’s the 11 hour long way round.

Our road is not too bad and there is now 250km of bitumen across the lowlands, but the climb up to Sen Monorom includes an 80km construction site with plenty of mudbaths and a couple of landslides. I was amazed at how the Ford pickup managed to plug through mud inches deeper than its floor, and we would have got through in daylight but for the best part of an hour spent pulling a minivan past a landslide. People often spend a night on these roads not 'cause they're stuck but someone else is bogged and blocking the road.

It had already rained solidly for a week but the next day the remnants of Typhoon Ketsana came through, wet and windy but nothing very unusual where I was. After a few 12 hour days we knocked out a passable application - having been training our guys in "the logical framework approach" it would have been nice to work through it in an orderly fashion, but shortcuts and fudging were the order of the week, we were still redrafting 30 mins before the deadline! On the last day the sun broke through, fog cleared and I had a brief look at the mountains around town before dark.

Next morning we set off down a much drier road and were soon buzzing along the highway. On a few corners there was a faint sqeal from a front tyre, and when we stopped to eat I looked to see if it was a bit flat or hard, but it looked OK. We made good time despite some of 'our' road being flooded (picture above - never seen that before) and 15km from home were on track to knock 4 hours off our outward time when the front suspension collapsed and we careened into the weeds. A bolt holding the upper control arm fell out .. hence the squeally tyre .. and the remaining one eventually broke. Now that would have been really interesting at 100km/h, but at 40 no one died. An hour had it patched up and limping home.

Next day was the sabbath and a rest was in order, but the NGOs had been gearing up a flood relief effort and I ended up driving a load of rice and other bits to one of the northern districts along the Sesan River. Parts of Cambodia saw a lot of wind and rain from the remnants of Typhoon Ketsana (the same storm that drowned Manila). The Vietnamese have been building hydro dams in the upper reaches of the Sesan and they like to amuse themselves by saving up water and then dumping it at times of flooding to see how much higher thay can get the water to rise in Cambodia. This time they managed to get the river to break its banks before the typhoon hit; two days later people went to bed as normal in their tall stilt houses and woke in the middle of the night swimming. We heard of one old man who remained with his house when the family evacuated, when it went under he climbed a tree, when that went under he swam to another, and stayed in it for 3 days. Another family climbed a mobile phone tower.

Many families are camped on 'islands' with little more than their clothes and maybe a sheet of plastic, and we are using longboats to take food to them. I dropped a load at Veun Sai schoolhouse (pictured) which is usually 800 metres from the river; now the boats can pull up to the verandah and load direct. In Ta Veng we visited the health centre which like the rest of the village had had 2 1/2 metres of water through it.

I got involved in a quick needs assessment and more high speed proposal writing, doing a draft for flood relief in a few hours, but it came to nothing. As expected, my house had let rain in during the typhoon, but it kept happening in normal weather so finally I said I'd have to move elsewhere; suddenly the staff were on the roof replacing rotted shingles.

The staff have all been doing training leading to this week doing field surveys, so I hopped on a moto and buzzed off to a couple of villages to watch the action. it is interesting to see but I don't follow the conversation so well, as much of it is in Kreung or Tampuon language, translated into Khmae for our records and then into English for us barang. It’s a nice change for me to get out into the community rather than stuck in the office with the hungry mosquitos.

Someone called me a "longnose" the other day - must be a decade since that happened!


September 27, 2009

Notes from a Small Kingdom .. and a larger one

Hi Folks,

Its been another long gap between missives .. after I was weakened by Dengue and by the drug that finally killed my pet tapeworm, a couple of other infections moved in and I ended up getting shipped off to Bangkok where the hospitals are shiny and the service 5 star.  After antibiotics most of what I needed was rest, and I got plenty of that. A happy side effect is that I lost 14kg, most of which came from Darwin's pubs and clubs; its great to be without it but can anyone tell me why I still have a gut?  Now I need to keep it off, more difficult as the weather gets cooler.

It would be hard for me to see two more varied years of weather;  last year the monsoon started (very late) in September, while this year it kicked off in May, and has been fairly constant since - the annual rainfall is about 2.2 metres and most of it falls July - Oct.  My house was wanted for family so I have moved to a small apartment-like place in the grounds of a hotel near the middle of town.  The small dwelling is exactly right, a bed-sit plus kitchen, bath and utility, but unfortunately its not very well built, a bit dingy and tends to get water inside.

I bought myself a nice new fridge in Phnom Penh and sent it up on a pickup, once again the envy of the neighbourhood .. will these ridiculous luxuries never cease?  My new landlady is trying to extract a promise to sell it to no-one but her when I leave. I'm not too sure about the quality of these Thai built fridges, but they seem to work well in the tropical conditions (and a frost free upside-down Panasonic 155 litre for $300 seems good value when you've spent $400 repairing an old fridge in Australia). Both my places have had one of the common 26" 'Sony' tvs, sold here for $50; they come from China and the buttons tend to change function over time, but with a remote they mostly work OK.

A couple of nights back I was ready for bed when a decent storm front hit. This stage of the monsoon there are less thunderstorms and more broad wet cloud systems, so the storm didn't seem that dramatic until the water began splashing off the bed and my luggage.  I dashed about rescuing stuff and putting it up high in dry spots, dragged the new fridge out from under a cascade, then spent the night in one of the hotel rooms.

This week I am off to to the neighbouring mountain province of Mondulkiri, to write a funding proposal for the Indigenous Peoples' Health Rights projects in both places.  The tropical storm which drowned the Philippines yesterday is threatening to become a typhoon and is heading this way, so I may come back to another deluge. Initially I planned to drive but the boss decided to send a driver to share the wheel, not a bad thing as it is 10 - 12 hours of mostly hard slog down to the lowlands, south a couple of hundred clicks then back into the mountains.


July 4, 2009

Notes from a Small Kingdom 7


Its been a long time between letters, either I've been too sick to think them up, my computer has been too sick to type on, my email has been inaccessible, or the 'net has been too sick to carry messages. My Australian isp shut down my account, killing off my website and my decade old email address. Soon after, my hard drive failed, leaving me lots of messing around to get repairs in Phnom Penh, rebuild and retrieve data.

Back in April we had Khmer (Chinese) New Year and a week of holidays. Visitors dropped in from France and I took a break, ducking back into Phnom Penh office to interview job applicants in the middle. We spent the first 5 days at a 'pool resort hotel' just out of the semi deserted capital. There are a few of these places catering to day-trippers from town as well as guests. This one is nicely laid out with bungalows scattered in tropical gardens around 2 pools and - being French run - the food is good and the value excellent.

On the last morning we all woke early and with nothing pressing but breakfast were all still lazing in bed pretending to sleep at 7am. I heard a few loud cracks and my first thought was fireworks (at this time? idiots) but it developed into a very loud cracking which I thought was a very close thunderclap. However it seemed to be getting closer, lightning doesn't do that so I started to look up, but my rising head was met by the falling ceiling as the roof came down. After a short blank and settling of debris I looked through some gaps in the wreckage and worked out that a huge tree had demolished the bungalow. Having calmed the screaming and checked that there were no serious injuries, I dug myself out and then lifted the wreckage off the others. By the time stunned bystanders arrived we were standing in the garden forlornly pondering the state of our room and baggage.

We picked up a few scratches and bruises, a small discount on our bill, and a lingering suspicion of tall trees. It proved to be the tree itself that caused it all, but I find now that thunderstorms make me edgy, where previously I enjoyed them. We have had a lot of storms up here since April so that's a lot of edgy. In fact, with last year's monsoon so late and this year's very early, in 10 months I've had two 'wets'.

After a shower and feed, and a few hours cleaning luggage, we took a bus to Sihanoukville and the beach. When we arrived it was buzzing, people on NY holidays filled the place, but by Monday the town had emptied; we sat in a great restaurant on the beach overlooking the bay with fresh barbecue and live music .. and only three of us in the place. Its how rich people must feel when they live in castles I guess, only warmer.

My visitors went home and so did I, back to an office in flux as the manager had resigned and a new British-Kenyan-Indian technical advisor joined us. We found a new Program Manager in Alex, a Filipino with long experience in Cambodia. I was on the selection panel and had worried that there may be no suitable applicants, but it turned out that we had a choice of possibles. This hasn't been the case with some of the other jobs we've tried to fill.

An old pal from Melbourne (and the Oxfam India trip) passed through Ratanakiri and stayed for a couple of days .. my first house guest! He was on a birding trip for 4 months in half a dozen countries, and managed his target of spotting his 1000th species somewhere in China. I have been suffering from the isolation as the email and Skype get worse, and it is great to be able to sit and chat for hours on end. The worst thing about this lifestyle is the inability to have a gab with a mate regularly. In my Red Cross training I saw how valuable 'debriefing' is after incidents, but its also a normal part of daily life, getting stuff off your chest .. another thing you don't notice happens until its not there.

My landlord decided to do some home improvements, not during any of the seven weeks I've spent away but late into the evenings on a normal working week when I came home desperate for rest and got a building site instead. The house is made mainly of unlined timber frame clad in planks, and for some reason he decided to plank the inside of the main bedroom. In addition to having my house full of people without warning, the obvious disruption and the massive damage the builders did to everything that got in their way, I was also appalled at the poor work they were doing. In this part of the world, any small cavity is an obvious home for all kinds of squatters (my last boss had endless dead-rat-rotting-in-the-wall fun while another Aussie is currently looking for a new home as she can no longer stand sharing with the 300 bats in the walls and ceilings) and here they were creating a multi story apartment complex for vermin, full of big inviting gaps and holes. Their two favourite tricks were cutting the planks 3-5cm too short and splitting them in two while hammering in nails, while the second grade wood was full of holes to begin with.

In Cambodia there are many large spotted geckos, (with the interesting latin name Gekko gecko, and in khmer named tokay to differentiate from the smaller tokung) which often live in the upper parts of buildings. Asians are terrified of them, mainly I think due to a fearsome reputation for biting and never letting go (the only way to get one off in one piece is to immerse it in water). They are really very timid but have a disconcerting habit of falling near people, especially when disputes over territory arise between geckos. I was having a peaceful 'cook at the table' hotpot dinner in a Ban Lung restaurant when one dropped into the vegies; the local with me screamed the place down. I had been living fairly peacefully with three in the house, but with the onset of the monsoon and their breeding season I was surrounded by a nightly chorus of their very strident series of calls. With the walls lined, they were no longer constrained to the small gaps behind pillars and tended to camp inside the wall two feet from my head, where the all night calling and scratching about gave me no hope of sleep. After weeks of this I managed to trap them outside and plug all the larger gaps with cardboard. Being territorial they are not amused, and there has been the odd scuffle in the lounge and toilet.

The water tank poised atop my bathroom has filled a couple of times (either because it rained a heck of a lot or because someone put the pump in the well on and forgot it) and as they've made no provision for an overflow, it floods into my kitchen and what are aptly described 'wet areas'. It gets exciting when you later absently turn a light on, as you get nice cascades of sparks and lots of noise. Usually a guest does this. I've showered and … whatever in the dark for weeks now. I think one flood happened while I was away and the water sat for a time; when I got back the food cupboard wouldn't open and a lot of food was mouldy or stale. Each trip I lug a large sports bag full of supermarket treasures back from Phnom Penh an eke it over the months, I don't like having to throw it out! A stick of French sausage with a camembert-like coating of mould was stored in my fridge, and the mould infested everything, I had to grit my teeth and dump a lot of ham and cheese.

I had another surprise visit from my French connection, and was persuaded to join her on the trip to Phnom Penh by promising myself a visit to the doctor to try and sort the stomach out. I had been feeling off colour and over a couple of days noticed bunches of "bites" around my wrists and ankles, but during the journey down my whole body turned a blotchy red, a sign of bleeding capillaries and a classical symptom of Dengue Fever (and HIV incidentally). Oh well, I was going to the doc anyway. I stayed in Phnom Penh for 12 days, when the blood tests finally yielded a positive result for Dengue, then got a minibus back home, there to collapse for another couple of weeks. Now I am gradually building strength for full days at work but a 'sick headache' lingers and my concentration is still pretty dodgy.

An Australian Youth Ambassador volunteer in town got malaria that week, took the tablets OK but after five days had a soaring fever; turns out she had dengue as well, and she ended up evac'd to a hospital in Bangkok.

Last month I was reading Lincoln Hall's account of being left for dead on Everest, and in the middle of the book I found myself watching a new National Geographic series about Everest .. and here were a bunch of the people I was reading about, there in technicolour. This week I started reading Frederick Forsyth's The Afghan which includes in its narrative a pretty good potted history of the war on terror into which his characters are woven. Twice I have found myself reading an account of a particular raid in Afghanistan or Sierra Leone, and within 24 hours turning on the TV and seeing actual footage of the incident (along with another view of the event), in a program called Situation Critical. I don't know if this is a comment on the wonders of technology and a shrinking world, or on the weirdness of life.

On the subject of TV - since getting beaten up I've got a bit post-traumatic, and so try and avoid some sights, and its amazing how many TV programs have torture scenes in them - you really notice once you start changing channels to avoid them. The Thais (who provide much of our cable) have an interesting take on this: if there is any cigarette being smoked, bare 'part' on display or any weapon pointed at anyone (even a cocked finger!) it is pixelated out … but their nightly news is peppered with lingering shots of blood draining from limp corpses at accident and murder scenes. I guess the libel defence works - if its true its OK.

As I write they are spraying tar to underseal the road in front of the office, yes, you read right .. the first 100 metres of legendary Highway 78 is in the first stage of getting a black top! They are into year 3 of the project though, the town is still a mess and there is an open culvert blocking our front gate. They first dug this one Sunday, with all our vehicles parked inside; it took some messing about with planks to get them out and three weeks to get any back in (via a half block of footpath).

I'll go and rest my headache .. keep well,


About Geckos: http://www.rikitikitavi-kampot.com/TokayGecko.html

March 8, 2009

Part 6 - Dust dust dust

I’ve not been much of a correspondent, what with health and internet problems. My service provider here is so unreliable that many email servers refuse to accept mail from it. And in a spam laden world, no server will send this to you all at once, so I need to send a few copies.

Stomach problems are pretty routine, but some very strange sensations turned out to be a parasite problem. Without easy diagnostic facilities to hand, I used the ‘catch - all’ treatment, which catches all but the type I had, so a second round was needed. Fortunately, the usual case with these wee critters is that they live mostly harmlessly in humans, and do all there tissue burrowing, cyst forming and other nasty stuff to the other hosts in their life cycle, like pigs, cows and fish. I’ve also had a long running respiratory thing which seems to have migrated to my ears, swelling them internally and messing with my hearing and more recently balance. Of course, when I got to see the Australian Embassy doctor in Phnom Penh all was quiet.

My landlords bought a new mattress when I moved in .. after 4 nights there was a clear deep indentation from my body - giving a fair indication of quality! I an pretty tolerant of dodgy beds, but the sagging combines with a poor range of available pillows to put pressure on my ears, so I tend to wake up numb and deaf on one side.

I’ve begun presenting a regular series of small group lectures on management topics to the Team Leaders; I’ve had to dust off some old skills but since everything here has to be dusted off before use noone seems to notice. The nicest bit of feedback I’ve had was from one who said he studied all this at university, but never understood it ‘til now.

Getting them to turn up can be a challenge, and I can get tetchy after waiting a week for two hours of their time and five of six don’t bother showing up .. last week I corralled them in time to start 23 minutes late, and felt the need to run over the ‘ground rules’. Those of you who attend workshops will be aware of this sort of participatory methods gone mad, where you sit as a group and decide what the rules are for your meeting, whether phones must be off or on silent, how many toilet breaks you are allowed, blah blah. Usually this and ‘getting to know you’ takes up the first 20% of any course. I told the guys “you’ve done enough of these to know what to do, turn up on time, kill your phone, don’t chat amongst yourselves, we are 23 minutes late for a 2 hour session, let’s get on”. One of them wanted to debate the rules for phones, can it be on, but on silent, or must… I replied that he could interpret the rules how he liked, just don’t disturb me and everyone else. Well, you could have heard a 10 tonne steamroller drop a kilometre away. Actually, I did. Happens all the time. Not content with looking shocked, he complained to the boss later about my methods. This week all those available turned up 20 minutes early! I’ve warned them if they don’t use my services other provinces will.

Inflation had been rising here, around 25% in the first half of 2008; not quite the 40,000,000% of Zim, but enough to bite. With the drop in oil prices it has stabilised I think. Worse though is last year’s freefall in the Aussie dollar, which cut any money I withdraw by a third, and in 4 months cost me an amount I could have used to fully furnish a house. Timber has been rising severely in price, it used to be really cheap, and I’ve been looking around for something I can afford .. as I write I am wedged against a small coffee table perched atop two wooden stool as a makeshift desk, and I’m tired of it.
Gecko in my lounge
There’s a small industry here making mostly very heavy chunky timber tables and chairs, much of it from illegally logged timber. There was a crackdown a while back and a lot of backyard carpenters were shut down and fined, which puts a bunch of locals out of work but does nothing to stem the forest destruction, it just ensures it is all exported and enriches the elite rather than a bit staying in the country providing heirlooms and livelihoods. It has contributed to a quintupling of the price of pieces once very affordable; cost and taste encourage me to forage in Phnom Penh for light wooden or cane gear instead. Transporting it up in good condition is a problem. I’ve finally got onto a bloke who knows a bloke who seems to know what I want (I gave photos) and has given a reasonable quote. Though .. I requested a table 180 x 100 cm, and my go-between casually mentioned that the carpenter would make it 80 wide as it would look better. ‘80 is very narrow for a dining table’ quoth I. ‘Oh, you want a dining table!’ Well, yes, and desk, guest bed for drunks, whatever, just make what I drew… That’s the point of drawings and measurements and photos isn’t it? Fingers crossed.

A while back I threw a house warming party. I was fairly low key in inviting people and on the night I managed a good racial mix and barely had to toss out a single drunk. I got Sal to cook up some curry and spring rolls but my landlady passed on that it is quite unnecessary - in future if I need a heap of food just tell her and she’ll do it. Her husband said he wanted to give me food but wasn’t sure if I could eat it, I said khmer food is fine. A couple of days later the wife brought up some sweet potato type vegetable, the sort of thing you may well miss out on if you don’t have local people to guide you. Since then someone bobs up occasionally with a plate, especially if I have just come in from Phnom Penh. If I haven’t bolted the door they will just walk in which can be disconcerting (one needn’t wear much in the warmer months, which is most of them) - they do sort of announce themselves, but this is not easily distinguishable from the background racket that is usual around meal times.

Getting ready, I began to practice the ‘Heath Robinson’ art of moto transport, buzzing about town with coolers, mats and bags of ice strapped and balanced about the ‘bike. These little motos are very practical, and tootling along with 4 cartons of beer between your legs is pretty effortless, it’s the loading and unloading that’s tricky. As soon as you need to put your legs down you lose control of the forward cargo, and when its heavy it can get away from you. You lose a bit of turning circle too and need to plan ahead to avoid the necessity of sudden sharp turns. I have a couple of webbing straps (thanks Onsy) which are absolutely great for rear loading; otherwise you need a passenger to hold it on.

The only guest that caused a bit of carnage was a new British volunteer that I didn’t really know who took up the implied invitation ( - if you’re white and there’s a party feel free). That was fine, I didn’t even mind the broken glass, but 2 weeks later she had her own housewarming with lots of little written invitations, and didn’t invite me. Kind of symbolic of my relations with the bulk of the expats in town.

At another party I managed to kick something in the dark - it was right in the middle of the driveway - and pretty much cut my big toe in half, so I had a few weeks of not being very mobile, and feeling queasy for a day every time I dressed the gruesome wound. For a while the end looked like it belonged in the Egypt Room at the British Museum, but now the dead black mummy bit has dropped off and its pretty much ‘good as old’.

I have one of the ‘Rabbit’ ceramic water filters that are commonly given to villagers in Cambodia with the help of Red Cross and groups like HU. We have been working on a water and sanitation proposal with a consultant and we were chatting about how a big well-sinking project in Bangladesh gave many people access to clean water, but altered the soil chemistry leading to arsenic dissolving and contaminating the water, with a few cases of poisoning the result. (Some people just can’t win.) He pointed out that the Rabbit filters leach arsenic too, something the manufacturers admit. Comforting. Still, it was the first permanent cure for malaria, and may attack tumours, so its not all bad.

I have had a couple more trips to Phnom Penh to conduct interviews - recruitment is a major and difficult task, and we have a stack of vacancies. There is a great tendency for people to fail to turn up, both at interviews and, once appointed, at work. Cambodians are the main culprits but an Australian jerked us around pretty badly recently too, really annoying as we missed our other top choice due to the wasted time. One of the interviews we attempted was in Nepal; put their phone system in contact with ours and you are not going to get a conversation worth a dime! We ended up on Yahoo chat!

One trip was hard on our Nissan - going down we hit a bus (not very hard) and coming back a cow hit us. For the return I was given the wheel; having not driven for half a year and not driven a left hand drive for 20 years, I found PP’s traffic and the narrow clogged highway out a fair challenge. After a few hours we turned onto a nice clear road, and just got settled when a cow bolted onto the road - pretty unusual behaviour in these parts where man and beast take a measured approach to most things. I could avoid it OK, but my options were limited when a second one appeared, I didn’t hit it but it hit us, putting a couple of minor dents in the back door. After 9 hours of concentration I was pretty knackered.

As I write the house is back to vibrating in gut churning fashion, another chapter in the epic saga of the new road. They seem to do most of the work on weekends for some reason. If possible, it is making the dust even worse; it is like living 20 yards from the old Stuart Highway. Last night we had an unseasonal thunderstorm which has settled the dust nicely for a while, but my house is already grotty underfoot, having not been mopped throughout in the last 48 hours.

Hope this finds you well,


December 16, 2008

Part 5 - Water Festival (week 18)


I have had endless troubles with managing my email as Office and Vista (spawn of Bill Gates and Satan) don’t get on, and am in another long period of no internet access. This time it is largely stupid delays in getting the bill paid, and power cuts. Having regular communications makes life a lot more pleasant (although lately a lot of my communications have been the email equivalent of window envelopes, not what you need when you’re flat broke). To add to the frustrations, my long draft of ‘Notes 5’ has vanished, so I’ll start again…

In the brief time when I did have ‘net, I discovered “torrents”, the file sharing method that has picked up where the likes of Napster left off (or were cut off by the likes of Sony). Michael Crichton’s Prey was all about how computer programmers use biological principles in advanced programming, and this is how torrents work: you get a ‘swarm’ of people all passing tiny bits of music or whatever around like ‘flu in an office building. Its fascinating, and has also led me deeper in to the world of open source software. This is where a bunch of enthusiasts all pitch in to develop a program, make it freely available and gradually improve it. They have already produced a perfectly good office suite - if you don’t want to pay $150 for Microsoft’s Office just go to OpenOffice.org and get theirs for free! What gets me is that these programs (such as the ones I’m using to download and edit music) are easier to use, more stable and fuller featured than stuff you buy, and its all done by hobbyists. Its great to know that trains get spotted and birds twitched, but these guys have a really useful hobby, and they’re damn clever. Childhood obesity and social alienation is surely a small price to pay for such computer literacy…

Looking at all this and working with people who think a net is for fish (or with the success of our education program: mosquitoes) brings home the ‘information divide’, a new way of looking at the separation of developed and less so. As web sites get bigger and heavier they get less accessible rather than more; many aren’t worth the wait. I am becoming very tired of BBC World which seems to be a 24 hour ad for a website, its always “look it up here” and “for more information go there” - you are a freaking tv channel guys! We don’t all have ADSL blipping away in our spare room! If they spent all that air time on news stories we’d all be better informed.

Anyway, back to my corner of the world. The monsoon has come to a belated end, and the town is turning into a dust bath. It isn’t helped by the constant roadworks which have been providing an ever changing moto cross track into the town centre. At times its almost fun but tricky in the dark, especially if you haven’t seen it lately in the daylight, with huge trenches appearing across the road daily. Its not helped by the fact that when you get a rough spot and back off the throttle the headlight goes out! I bumped up the idle a bit which has helped. There is constantly a red layer forming on everything, inside the house and office almost as much as out.

Meanwhile the market has been half demolished. It consisted of a good sized concrete pavilion with a definite communist-funded look about it, propping up a slightly larger area of shanty roofs and mud baths. Now all the shanty part has been cleared and a concrete structure is going up. The stalls have moved out to a temporary ring around the site, which is actually better than the old market, with wider aisles and firmer footing, though the tarpaulin roofs are very low for a barang.

There is ever increasing crime and violence in town, with muggings, thefts and breakins all rising. A family who live near me have a farm and house about 4 km from home. One night they were at the farm, having just sold a crop and so with a sum of money on the premises; they were robbed and the whole family shot. Later the thieves realised the wife had survived and pursued her to the hospital to finish the job, which they didn’t manage. A couple of nights back someone was trying to get into my place in the small hours.

I got to see the local aristocracy at play one lunchtime; I was sitting in Gecko House restaurant when I heard the sliding of tyres and the clash of a moto accident. From my seat I saw a young teenage guy come off a shiny new moto, he soon got up so I kept out of it. Soon after a guy turned up in a Lexus and demanded to know who hit his son. The motodops (moto taxi drivers) who work from that corner said that it was the kid’s fault (he sped around the junction without looking, which is not uncommon) and the guy started belting the motodops. By then four police had arrived and when they told him not to hit them, he turned on the police, punching three of them and copping a few good ones in return. Eventually one of his associates calmed him a bit and he stalked off to his Lexus and left. Seeing him punch police with impunity is a good illustration of the power balance in Cambodia. One of the cops was my landlord!

There was a march through town in support of the rule of law and land rights. The last one of these was broken up with water cannon and tear gas. Despite some pressure to join I abstained, not for fear of some roughhouse but because it is not part of my job and so clearly outside the guidelines laid down by AusAID for my behaviour. It all went peacefully.

One of these land disputes has led to a court case, where local big shots sold off village land to a company and then stole most of the proceeds - one family was paid their share of compensation for their lost land to the princely sum of $12.50! - but the villagers took action and claimed the land back. The company agreed but (not unfairly) asked for their money back. Of course it had been milked off and spent, and the ‘elders’ objected to this being pointed out publicly and have sued for defamation. I was chatting to a British volunteer in his first week at his new job, with an organisation that is (incorrectly) blamed for promulgating a report with the slanderous claims in it. He is wondering if he’ll be behind bars by week’s end! At the end of the first day’s hearing the defendants were in custody and getting a bit of a roughing up from their gaolers, to which the assembled crowd took exception - there was a minor riot and the prisoners freed by the mob.

At the time I was in my office, which is next door to ADHOC, a human rights activist organisation. A sudden hail of gunfire caught my attention, there seemed to be at least one guy with a handgun in the street and someone else had dumped a moto and bolted. Then a pickup full of police bristling with rifles turned up and the guys at the centre of it all took off. I’m not sure what it was all about and my landlord couldn’t enlighten me. No bullets hit our building anyway.

On one of the holidays a bunch of us went down to Boeung Yak Lom, the volcanic crater lake outside town. The water is deep (about 60m) and clear, and on days like this so still that floating in the centre (with eyes hippo-like just above the surface) you can see the curvature of the earth. We shared a pot of rice wine: you buy a ceramic pot filled with sawdust and poke bamboo straws into it, then pour in water, when you suck you get wine. As it empties you just keep adding water, til eventually it loses its strength like an old tea bag. It doesn’t taste a whole lot better, but the delivery system is a bit more controlled than swilling down slugs of lao lao rice whisky from shot glasses.

In November we had the water festival, which commemorates the reversal of flow in the Tonlé Sap: for half the year it drains a huge lake into the Mekong, and for the other half fills the lake from the Mekong (which rises about 7 metres in the monsoon). Near the lake is Siem Reap and Angkor (when I first came the river was the main artery to travel there), at the junction with the Mekong is Phnom Penh, and here there are ‘dragon boat’ races and other festivities which bring around a million people to town. I dodged the crowd and went to the beach for a week. I won’t spout clichés like ‘Kuta 30 years ago’ but if you fancy a beach holiday, go before its spoilt…

On the way back I went shopping in Phnom Penh, pillows for my aching neck, a duvet (now a necessity as the weather cools) and a pair of rattan armchairs (pretty comfortable considering my meagre budget, but they took about 20km/h off the top speed of our car riding on the roof). After a week away I still had yellow-red toe nails from the Ratanakiri dirt.

We in the west are rather coddled with gadgets and stuff. I remember in Zimbabwe asking for a can opener and being met with blank looks; what’s wrong with a carving knife? And once you get the knack its not hard, maybe a bit of a tendency to take the edge off the knife. (The empty cans are less useful with the jagged edges.) In Thailand I stayed with a family whose kitchen was equipped with a goodly collection of blunt knives (from opening cans? they didn’t use many) and I was looking for a sharpening stone, gaining similar blank looks. What’s wrong with a plate? You simply turn over the nearest china bowl and hone the knife on the ring of unglazed surface beneath. This works well as a ‘steel’ but has its limits; in the end I got a cheap stone and sharpened the lot. This minor achievement must have gone to my head, as next time I got bored I completely rewired their house!

I am enjoying using my first ever meat cleaver, really good as a cooking knife but essential for my bolognaise as it’s the only way to mince meat (yes, I do buy those big chunks of pork that lie around the market feeding the flies). I gave it a quick run over the bottom of a plate and nearly took the end of my finger off practicing my ‘Asian tv chef’ speed chopping technique on shallots. I think it’s the first real outing for my first aid kit in the last seven countries.

One lunchtime I came home to a flood - the landlord’s sister-in-law (who lives with them and helps around the house) started the well pump and went out; once the tank filled it overflowed into my bathroom and kitchen. Later I heard a series of loud bangs from the toilet; a guest must have left the light on and the water seeped into the fitting, causing a bit of arc welding.

Its starting to get chilly some nights and I’m glad to have that hot shower (except the odd time when the power is off or the tank empty) and my single jumper. The days are very pleasant though, it’s a great climate at this end of the year. The manager of a German NGO threw a big party last weekend, a great show but in the dark I stubbed my toe on a rock and split it in two, now I don’t get about much while I wait for the halves to rejoin. I forced myself to close and dress it which was a bit gruesome.

At last! Internet .. I can send this without dragging my laptop into town and renting a connection. Cheers!


October 29, 2008

Part 4 - Home sweet home - 21/11/2008

I had a trip down to Phnom Penh, mainly to interview applicants for a new project (Maternal Health Rights), and took the chance to shop for household stuff like better quality cookware and glasses that’s hard to find in Ban Lung. The social responsibilities of such a trip are mind boggling - my mate Colin arrived back the same day, and three new volunteers on the Friday, it all adds up to a lot of bar-hours, and not much bed-hours. AVI organised a sunset ‘booze cruise’ on the river to welcome the vols and a visitor from head office, and this segued into a party at a magnificent bar on the waterfront opposite town, then another with a bunch of Australian Youth Ambassadors at a place in town… After a week of this I needed to get home for a holiday.

Small world syndrome struck again .. I was sitting with Col in a restaurant and was distracted by the side/back view of a guy walking past, one of those silly ‘they look familiar moments’, took a while to trace the memory to a guy called Toby from Harare days, but no, trick of the mind. Two days later I came out of my hotel and set off down the street, a voice called “Tony?”. I turned to see a strange woman (no, a normal woman that I didn’t recognise, not a strange .. oh, forget it) who saw my blank look and said “were you in Zimbabwe? .. Peterborough Lodge .. from Canada .. I married Toby .. my hair was red then” .. I do remember her, not well as we only met a couple of times, but the guy I saw was Toby, the vol who took over running the education camp on the Zambezi where I canoed with hippos. Not long after being dragged out of bed at 3am with a gun to his head he decided to move on. We got together for a drink; he’s doing natural resource surveys in the Cardamoms now. Gives you a weird timewarp feeling.

I’ve gone through the tiring process of shopping for household goods and settling into the house, got a gas bottle and water filter, strung up the mozzie net and so on. I installed a new power outlet and light by my bed - if I turned off the power I cut off the landlord as well, so I wired it ‘hot’. I’m getting used to this - in Thailand I completely rewired a house, and putting in the main switch had to be done with live wires, which was a bit tricky as there was some old splices to remove and very heavy cable - there was a little ‘arc welding’, which added excitement to the day. I put the light on the wall low over the bed for reading, and the way it lights the net from inside is actually quite cosy and romantic, like a 4 poster.

The water filter is a large ceramic pot which sits in a bucket, you fill the pot and the water seeps through the clay and collects below. Some of my roof drains into the header tank, but the main water supply is pumped from a well. Most houses have a well, and most have a septic tank; you can see the need for the filter.

I have moved one block, and into a new time zone … in my concrete hotel I was well insulated and continued my usual daily routine, but the house with its thin plank walls and usually open windows is not much soundproof, and daily life kicks off in my neighbourhood around 4:30am, with dogs, roosters, families, vehicles and pots and buckets all joining the cacophony. I am waking (and going to bed) about 2 hours earlier than before, but some sleeps wind up a bit short for my liking. The water ran out one night and the pump was started about 4:45 one morning, it is right next to my bed and sounded like a huge storm hitting, an abrupt end to my z blowing.

The house is pretty luxurious really, apart from the standard of some of the work you really couldn’t ask much more, except for insect proofing and maybe some insulation. I was telling my boss that I had the hot shower working, and his wife got in on the act, sharing with him her thoughts on the fact that theirs doesn’t work. He fled back to the office. But when I told him I can access the internet from home, he got really steamed. He is keen to move himself, largely because of a persistent rat problem. I try to tell him there’s money to be made - see the article at the bottom…

[I’ve added photos of the house to http://tonyhobbs.webs.com/tony/gallery/ratanakiri.htm ]

I didn’t need to find a maid, one found me pretty quick. She is the sister of Sal who has a restaurant in my street. Like my landlords she speaks no English so I have more incentive to practice Khmae. Sal went with me to the market to shop for cleaning stuff, and hopefully now I can go back and get reasonable prices at the same stalls. Tooling along on my moto with a woman sidesaddle on the back gripping 2 buckets, a huge tub, broom, mop, plates, bowls, basket and sundry tools and soaps, I started to feel a bit local.

Of course, the traffic in Cambodia is pretty hectic, with road rules treated as a suggestion only and a lot of pragmatism involved. We used to be impressed by the ‘Holden Precision Driving Team’ doing four car crossovers in an arena, but here the same manoeuvre is a simple daily routine, especially at the “Ugly Monument” in the centre of the main crossroads in town. Like the Thais (and unlike the Viets) people are very tolerant and cooperative, so as long as they can see what you’re up to, you can push in pretty much anywhere, and when you make a mistake you are likely to get off unscathed, others will just dodge you and grin. Crossing main roads on foot is an acquired skill, basically you have to ignore the traffic and move steadily with no sudden stops and starts, and the traffic flows around you. It’s a bit the same when driving. Unfortunately this push and go mentality leads to some nasty gridlock in Phnom Penh.

Ban Lung, like most towns, has a large number of ‘karaoke bars’, which do in fact offer this disgusting pastime, and sell booze, but only as a prelude to the real business of commercial sex. I’ve seen cars pulling up at one of these and collecting girls; I’m not sure if they offer full service on the premises as well as wine and song.

I went down to Sal’s one night, being the only visitor I sat with her under the house rather than going down the back to the new restaurant building. There was a woman lurking behind a pillar in the dark, peeking out occasionally; eventually she emerged and sat down but stayed silent and watchful. Later Sal told me that this woman was offered a job as a housemaid by a man who came to her village, so she came to Ban Lung but found herself expected to work at a karaoke bar. After 2 days she ran away and went down my street asking at various houses if she could sleep for a night .. all sent her packing until Sal let her stay. Hopefully she’s home now.

There are big road and drainage works happening on the main road into town, which is where our office is. Its long overdue and has been in progress for over a year, but they look pretty serious about it at the moment. How far they will go I don’t know - will there be bitumen? That would be really good. Meantime they are using a vibrating roller and each time it passes the whole office bounces around like some frenetic amphetamine driven earthquake has struck, rattling teeth and eyeballs in their sockets.

I’ve been trying to set up a small computer network (without much success) and changing the Windows product key on various pcs running pirate software (with more luck). I need to look at antivirus as we have a few worms in the system. For the moment I’m finished with my recruiting duties, but there’s more vacancies so I may get a Guernsey again.

I’m keeping to the tradition of living in ‘interesting times’. I was happy enough to arrive here a week after the latest elections, so all the ballyhoo was done, but now they’ve picked a fight with Goliath next door. The century of tension over ownership of the Preah Vihear historical site is breaking into firefights with the Thai army. Although this Angkor era temple has been affirmed as Cambodia’s under international law, it has long been much more accessible from the Thai side and many tourists have visited by crossing the border. Upset by Cambodia’s move to register the temple as a World Heritage site, the Thai government decided to occupy the area and our guys bit back. Last time the Thai gov’t upset the locals there were riots in Phnom Penh and the Thai embassy was attacked, so many Thais have fled the country.

The wet season is drawing to a close (with major flooding again in central Vietnam I thought we might see a bit more than the odd sprinkle we’ve had), but there’s still a sting in its tail - lunchtime today a squall came through with (unusually) strong winds and rain. Lightning struck very close to my house, and now there is no power or internet. The office has a generator but not many houses do. The town cable tv is dead but doesn’t matter to me - I unplugged my tv too late and it got fried, its stone dead now.

The roadworks have created an 80 cm drop outside our gate, and now the road is turning to claggy mud - when I walk along I gradually get taller as the clay sticks to my thongs and steadily turns then into platforms .. sort of Fred Flintstone does the 70’s .. but they get very heavy and start to drag.



Poor struggle as rat meat prices soar

Posted Wed Aug 27, 2008

The price of rat meat has quadrupled in Cambodia this year as inflation puts other meat beyond the reach of poor people, officials say.

With consumer price inflation at 37 per cent according to the latest central bank estimate, demand has pushed a kilogram of rat meat up to around 5,000 riel ($1.48).  Spicy field rat dishes with garlic thrown in have become particularly popular at a time when beef costs 20,000 riel a kilogram.

Officials say rats are fleeing to higher ground from flooded areas of the lower Mekong Delta, making it easier for villagers to catch them.

"Many children are happy making some money from selling the animals to the markets, but they keep some for their family," Ly Marong, an agriculture official said.

"Not only are our poor eating it, but there is also demand from Vietnamese living on the border with us." He estimates that Cambodia supplies more than a tonne of live rats a day to Vietnam.Rats are also eaten widely in Thailand, while a state government in eastern India this month encouraged its people to eat rats in an effort to battle soaring food prices and save grain stocks.   - Reuters


October 22, 2008

Part 3 - 7th October, 2008 (Week 9)

Like Thais, Cambodians love a good public holiday, and have 26 a year. Yes, twenty six. Ma'phei phra:m muәi in Khmae. Its time Aussies had a good hard look at this figure and sorted out a few more of their own. (None of us are up with the Balinese tally of 60!) We have just had a 4 day weekend for Pchum Ben, the festival of the hungry ghosts, when the spirits of dead ancestors are said to walk the earth and offerings of food are made to them. I thought about travelling somewhere, but the distances are too great and the buses so busy that I decided on a quiet weekend at home. On these big holidays the minivans tend to end up with passengers on the roof, and some have been spotted riding on the bonnet of Camrys.

I ran into some VSO volunteers in a restaurant and was invited along on their touring - most were visiting from Phnom Penh and Kratie and had hired a guide with a Pajero for a couple of days. I had missed the inner tube rafting but went to a couple of the waterfalls - it was a great opportunity to see them in full monsoonal spate without breaking my neck trying to ride a 'bike there - and visited a Tuam Puan 'hill tribe' village to look at their weaving. They are really nice to visitors and seem so unaffected compared to those I've seen in trek areas of Thailand and Laos. (I am so 'not a tourist' that it never occurred to me to take my camera and I missed some great shots.) There was also 3 bottles of single malt and a party 'til 4am but a tussle with stomach parasites kept me from joining in, thanks Buddha.

I have at last rented a house, 'slowly slowly catchee monkey' worked well for me, but with several new arrivals pending the pressure was on to act. It is very close to work in the street behind - they share some fence at the back. Being one block from the main highway and on a tar road it may be a little less dusty and certainly quieter than some. Prices are on the rise and I think I have a good deal.

It is a traditional wooden elevated house, but they have 'built in' the bottom and the owners now live downstairs, which is a bad as far as making noise and disturbing each other but is very good for security, sadly this is becoming a big issue. The landlord is a cop which may help too. They built a new two story 'wet area' so the house has an inside kitchen, shower and separate western toilet, all tiled and with stainless steel sink and modern bathroom fittings. They have put glass windows and burglar bars in place of the traditional shutters. So it is the best of both worlds: cool, characterful timber with clean bright cooking and washing facilities. I negotiated a hot water unit, and there is just enough water pressure and power to have a hot shower, a big luxury in cool season and one not shared by many expats here. Glass windows are useful as the houses are so dark with the shutters closed, and when you open them you get all the dust.

Most houses have much the same floor plan, though mine has had a wall removed which creates an L shaped living room (instead of another small bedroom). The biggest room was the kitchen/bath/washroom and had a concrete pan on the floor with drain and taps as a wash area. I thought I could work around it but yesterday they ripped it all out, so that is now my main bedroom. Then there are two more rooms; as is typical, one of these opens onto the front verandah rather than into the house. While its not one of the larger places it is plenty big enough for me; the only thing that could be bigger is the balcony as this is where most parties happen. Even here I have a little extra space, as the balcony runs around the side (which is unusual), its only 4' wide there but still useable.

The next task is to find a maid ... you can hardly expect a volunteer development worker to sweep their own floor, I mean really... A cleaner 5 days a week starts at $30 a month, and most people are happy to pay this just to keep on top of the dust, but many keep one on full time for security while they are at work. Now I have an incentive to practice Khmer - the landlords speak almost no English and likely the maid will be the same. Hiring can wait for a while as I will be in the house only 2 nights and then go to Phnom Penh for 5 days. Shopping! A great chance to kit out the new digs, plus my mate Colin will be in town, plus AVI are welcoming new volunteers and a head office visitor with a Mekong River sunset cruise which should be fun.

I am still grappling with exactly how I am going to deliver useful training to the staff here, the middle managers are all so busy that it just isn't practical to take them off to classes for any length of time, so I will likely be doing more mentoring that anything, at least until the Indigenous People's Health Association gets up and running. Soon there will be new people in two of the four team leader positions so its hard to guess at what they will be wanting. Also the Australian who works as technical advisor to one of the projects is leaving and a new face will take that spot. Meanwhile I have got onto the selection panel for positions in our new Maternal Health Advocacy Project, some of the applicants will do interviews and work tests in Phnom Penh, hence my visit.

Ban Lung was a safe peaceful small town until a few years ago, but the growth and influx of 'lowlanders', and perhaps some drug use, has lead to a gradual rise in crime. A few of my pals have had to move house because of repeated robberies, in one the guys just started jemmying timbers off the wall to get in, mid morning in the middle of town! The same morning my boss was targeted, but his wife and daughter were at home and disturbed the offenders who fortunately fled. More recently muggings have started to happen, usually around the town lake. One Friday night a Spanish expat turned up at Sal's Restaurant looking flustered; she'd been riding her pushbike and was stopped and relieved of her mobile phone. Not too happy with this she bought a motorbike to be safer, but last Saturday night she left Sal's to go home and was mugged on the main road for her shoulder bag, tipped off the bike in the process. All in all a sad and worrying trend.

Rainy season continues - there was a massive dump last night which caught me out at a bar, so I sat it out for two and a half hours - even if I'd had my poncho I wasn't about to take that on, apart from anything else you can't see in such a downpour, and the roads are murder. When wet the red clay roads are a skating rink; I sat with the Aussie from work and had a coffee next door to the office, and in the course of one cuppa four motos went down slap in front of the restaurant, all local people and so you'd expect well practised on two wheels. I've come off mine again, going out to a lodge on the Vietnam road 5km or so east of town. If you have the skill you are better off getting a bit of speed up, but I was only pottering and so just earned a mudbath and no scars. By chance I had just taken a photo of the offending puddle ..

I thought I'd have Sunday brunch at this 'rainforest eco lodge', which is a community project and well regarded, but when I asked about food the guy said 'sorry no meat, only vegetable, we have no guest'. No problem quoth I. Later he came back: 'sorry no vegetable'. That's OK, I have an appointment with a puddle anyway... I went on to the beautiful crater lake nearby but felt too dirty to sully the clear waters so didn't swim, just relaxed with a book.

Part 2 - 17th September, 2008 (Week 7) Ban Lung

Well, the Khmer lessons didn't disappoint, continuing to throw up new letters until the final minutes. Those 34 consonants can stand alone, or join up to form a syllable, but when grouped the second consonant nests with the first using a 'subscript' form, so there are 34 new letters to learn (a bit like Roman lower case). These are usually below but can wrap left or right of the first letter, then the vowel is added above, below, left or right of the consonant(s). (Except where this is too crowded - then you get another form of the vowel that goes below instead of above.) As I mentioned, the 22 vowels mostly have two sounds, dependent on the last consonant in the group to which they are attached (with a few exceptions where the first consonant decides) and there are also 13 independent vowels (one of which only occurs in two words), the consonants have one of two intrinsic vowel sounds when alone, chuck in a couple of exceptional cases and three punctuations and it gives us about 103 characters and 122 sounds.

There are no gaps between words, and often r and s are silent, especially at the end of words, so reading basically requires you to know the words first so you can recognise where each starts and finishes and which bit to say. An identical syllable when cut short by a bantak (which looks like this ' ) becomes an entirely new word (such as kok (frozen) and kok' (to wash)). Hmm.

Although khmae is not in fact classed as tonal, there are a lot of mission critical vowel sounds and a small error will shatter your intent; a lazy drawling of nyam to nyaum will turn your 'eat' into 'urinate' which can make your dinner a real pisser.

There is no f, so for foreign words you bung lo and vo together to do the job. An essential ingredient in your morning kafae, and a fine finish to a glass of bia draff.

The Khmer really like proverbs and euphemisms, and being sticklers for protocol they have a different word for every occasion. For example, there is a different word for 'eat' depending on whether you are talking colloquially, politely about others, politely about yourself, vulgarly (three options there), poetically, to your betters, inferiors, rural people, a monk, a royal, an animal, or in the latest slang.

By the last week the lessons were basically conducted entirely in script, leaving me scrambling to jot down khmae, phonetic and English of everything while trying to follow the lesson. The teacher is good at delivering ordered lessons and adds a lot of cultural information and fun, took us to the market and temple and joined us for dinner, so we finished up much wiser but buried under a load of information. My classmate has been in Cambodia for 2 years and so has some vocabulary, unfortunately for me this sped up the pace at times and led to long diversions off the topic at others.

Of course, when faced with an actual Khmer person and business to conduct it all flees the mind immediately, leaving you back at sign language and pidgin. I do have a party trick though - when I meet someone I try to write their name in script. I have all my books and tapes and a computer program that writes and speaks the letters and some words and phrases for you, so I can keep up the study alone but probably will need some more lessons.

The moto drivers became so frustrated at me walking everywhere that in my last week one of them called out "Where you go? I take you, its free!" causing great merriment up and down the street. Business was pretty quiet...

After the final session I hopped a bus to Sihanoukville for a beach weekend. During the week I'd got chatting to an Irish guy named Colin who is heading up to Siem Reap to do some volunteer English teaching to street kids, and liking my description of the south he came along. I caught up with a few old drinking pals from 2007, enjoyed the great value restaurants, walked on the beach and stayed up too late. When I saw the state of Colin after 24 hours I was glad I stick to beer and keep away from 'certain substances'. As a first timer to SE Asia he also embarked on a complicated love life, with great encouragement from the ageing and desperate local girls. Of course, 'ageing and desperate' in Cambodia means having turned thirty and begun to surrender your edge in looks to Naomi Campbell.

As I got up at 7am to catch a bus, Colin had just come in from a night out, so I left him to be carted around the markets and temple by his new one true love and headed back to Phnom Penh for my first day at work.

I went in the Cambodia country office for the first week, and my arrival coincided with the first ever strategic planning session, so I got to meet a few staff from the other provinces and even the deputy director from London. I thought I'd sit back and observe but ended up chairing sections of 'development cafe' - a sort of speed dating approach to group work - because most people were keen to contribute to all the topics while the 'chair' is kept to one table. Of course the local staff kept wanting to defer to me, and I kept pointing out I was just the minute taker, I couldn't tell them what their future direction should be.

Having listened to all the advice I could get, I spend time on the final days shopping. I was looking at computer speakers but ended up buying a portable stereo in the second hand stereo district around Oryssay Market, one of the rare ones with an input jack so I can play music from the laptop through it as well as radio, cd and cassette - the latter is only likely to be used with Khmer language tapes now we're in the digital age. It's a Sony from Japan and sounds pretty good for $28; I did get a bit caught up in the multitude of buttons labelled in Nipponese so went to the trusty (?) internet and downloaded an instruction manual in English. Not knowing what my house will have, I didn't buy much houseware, just sheets, towels, mugs, wine glasses, kettle and non-stick wok, but I filled a bag with food, things like mustard, pesto, ham, cheese, biscuits, muesli, wine, whatever I might crave that I won't get in the bush. I scored a motorbike helmet left by some Frenchman, found a couple of cables to connect the laptop with stereo and tv, and I was set. (So were Burke and Wills.)

I had the luxury of travel up by Nissan Patrol with my new boss Per and his family, all comfy and almost no honking. We stopped for breakfast at Skun, a town famous for the fried tarantulas sold from mounded baskets on the roadside. They actually look quite tasty for arachnids. There is a new sealed highway to Stung Treng on the Mekong, but this loops away to the east through Snuol, very close to the Vietnam border, and by taking the old road close to the river you save 100km. [ There's a map here ] The problem is in the monsoon it gets hard to distinguish the river from the land. A new road is being built on a 3 metre high embankment but the old low section of this road is fast becoming impassable. We were briefly stuck in a mud patch, but carried on to rejoin the highway to the Ratanakiri turn off, where a 100km stretch of earth road begins.

I've heard a lot about this road but with the help of a slow start to the wet season and the odd burst of grading and gravel laying it turned out to be in quite good condition. The whole trip with leisurely breaks took 9.5 hours. Most of the 57 odd bridges are planks dug into the roadbed, and it can be hard to see them coming, which is tricky when there are sections that have collapsed. During the recent road work, they pulled out around 80 pieces of unexploded ordnance from the road, including some nice big bombs, gifts of the USofA. There are no land mines in the province though.

Ban Lung is growing fast but is still a rough dusty provincial town. It is built on a fairly flat elevated spot with a small lake in the 'northern suburbs' and a famously beautiful 'crater lake' 3km to the south-east. The two focal points are a roundabout with a classically ugly monument in the middle, and the market a block away. There is a clutch of hotels and guesthouses and a handful of restaurants with western items on the menu, as well as many stalls, noodle shops and so on. There is also a bank and two gas stations (plus the blackened shell of a former and the half built shell of the next). [ There's some photos at http://users.picknowl.com.au/~hanuman/tony/gallery/ratanakiri.htm. ]

The town is built on red clay not much different to Adelaide's eastern suburbs, and the roads are mostly earth-formed, very dusty most of the year and a quagmire the rest. My arrival has been followed by the first decent monsoons - it is bucketing down as I write - and going anywhere is getting to be a dirty business. On the minor roads you really need a trail bike or 4WD, even walking can be tricky, while the main road gets very slick in rain - last night I was slithering about on the motorbike at 10 km/h, and today I stood chatting to the security guard and a guy fell off in front of our gate - at about 5 k's. I've already come off once, thanks to the slippery mud and a large drunk German swinging about on the back.

The weather is very pleasant after the south, up to around 28 degrees and positively cool in the mornings. At ten in the morning with a fan in the next office blowing through the door I am actually a bit too cool. I think October - February will be really pleasant, while later in the dry may get a little warmish.

For the moment I'm staying in a large flash looking hotel while I check out the housing options. Most housing in town is of the traditional elevated hardwood style, and unlike in Thailand they still have some forest and are building new houses in the same style, with the few concrete places standing out. Rental houses are furnished which makes life easier, although the standard varies a bit. They use well water and most have a header tank and running water in the house, while few have hot water. The town has cable tv (mostly from Thailand) which isn't very good but if you're lucky you get BBC, CNN, Discovery, NatGeo, some sport and movies in English. When the power goes off the cable guys tend not to reset the English channels; Sunday night a bunch of us went to a restaurant to watch the Grand Prix and our host had to shoot off to the office and roust the guys to connect star sport.

There is a regular Friday night 'drinking school' (this is an Australian expression which does not aim to imply any learning value..) of expat aid work types, and on my first weekend a couple of Aussies were leaving (albeit temporarily it turns out) so it was well attended, as was a Saturday night farewell party. I got to meet a friendly bunch of reprobates from around the globe; Australia, UK, Spain, Sweden, Germany and Holland all fielded representatives. CARE and VSO dominate the lineup; VSO is the British volunteer organisation but does not restrict itself to Brits. There have been a few comings and goings, and I'm told that curiously the lineup at drinks has gone from 70% female to 90% male of late. Anyway, a good bunch to hang out with.

I quite like Cambodia .. it has climbed a fair way up my list of recommended holiday destinations, especially for those on a budget - its cheap, safe, varied, a bit adventurous but easy, has facilities and the people are nice.

The shower has passed, the sun is out, and steam is pouring from the carport roof outside my window. Lunchtime!