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!