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.