Agony Aunt

“My wife is so angry all of the time.”


Not quite the answer I was expecting when a colleague dropped in unannounced and I innocently asked how his weekend had been.  But the one that I got none the less.


I’d opened one unholy can of worms with my question as he spent the next 30 minutes regaling me with tales of ways in which his wife is mean, the fact that his family feel sorry for him and don’t understand her and how he is therefore embarrassed to go to visit them. Oh, and not forgetting the fact that they’ve been married for over 25 years and he doesn’t feel he can divorce her as this wouldn’t look good.


During the conversation (monologue) I concentrated on giving supportive nods and looks coupled with the occasional ‘oh my goodness’ or ‘that must be really tough’ when I managed to get a word in edgeways.


This is not the first time my office has been the venue for personal disclosure since my arrival two months ago.


In this time I have been told stories of wayward children, lost opportunities, corrupt bosses, failed careers and more than one miserable marriage.


Each visit has been unsolicited by myself, draped in a façade of the caller wanting to visit the guy next door and ended with a version of the perfunctory phrase ‘so I go now.’


I quite enjoy these odd little interruptions to my day.  I love getting an insight into the reality behind the façade and the fact that people I hardly know want to come and tell me the woes of their life instead of engaging in idle ‘how’s the weather?’ or ‘have you eaten yet?’ chitchat.


But I also feel a little bit saddened by it too.  Am I the only person these people can find to talk to?  Does thinking about and sharing their stories in a language that is not their own really help?  What other outlet(s) do they have to manage and process their pain?  Is it acceptable to express pain on a personal level amongst their peers and generally in a nation that has suffered so much wide spread pain?


And just as I ponder these questions one of my regular visitors has appeared and so I’ll bid you farewell and open the doors to the confessional once more.

Silver Dream Machine


8.30am, Saturday morning Sophat calls up to let me know he’s here and I head down to set off on the weekend’s adventure – Motorbike training!


When Totie had asked me if I was going earlier in the week my first thought was, well I’ve got nothing else planned so why not.  By the time Vicky asked me what I was up to over the weekend on Friday evening this reason had matured into “I thought I’d go for shits and giggles”, closely followed by “If I survive it’ll make a great blog” and the piece de resistance “I think Jim (or Jumbo as spellcheck likes to call him) will melt or explode when he finds out!”


And so it began.  We (Totie, myself and an assortment of other new volunteers) waited patiently at the office for our instruction to begin.  At this point I would like to highlight the fact that in a nod to the safety talks given by the lovely Jumbo before I left I had chosen not to wear my flipflops, instead opting for sandals  – so much safer don’t you think!?


Unfortunately, the usual instructor (a Philippino volunteer) was unable to take the session so we were instead treated to a double act by the Cambodian Morecombe and Wise, Pisit and Pichchip from the VSO office.


Pisit had obviously been nominated as the straight man as he very thoroughly took us through the workings of the 125cc Honda Dream whilst I tried unsuccessfully to rid myself of the David Essex – Silver Dream Machine earworm playing on repeat in my head.


The Silver Dream Machine

We learnt where to put the petrol in (directly under where we sit in case you’re wondering), the perils of buying the petrol in coke bottles sold on the street, how to check the oil, switching the suspension to carry a passenger (who knew that happened!!!!) and loads of other stuff that I promptly forgot.


All the while this was happening Pichchip was taking photos and laughing at them for reasons known only to himself!?


After a pretty protracted talky session, interspersed with English pronunciation spurts as poor Pisit struggled to enunciate words such as ignition and clutch we moved on to starting the bike up and changing gears.


Everyone had a go and then Pisit declared that it was time to go practice.  We were heading off to a wedding venue in the city which apparently had a big open space for us to practice on.


Tots practicing sitting on the bike

For some reason Eric Morecambe (Pichchip) was keen for me to hop on the back of his bike to get there and so, for the first time since I lugged it over from the UK, I put my shiny new helmet on.  Jim, you’ll be pleased to know that there was a degree of envy amongst all of the volunteers as I’m the only one that has the lifty up chin thing!


We swerved through the city streets (thankfully as I was behind Pichchip I couldn’t see where we were heading thus avoiding bursting his eardrum with a shriek as he nearly hurtled head on into a reversing car).

Once we arrived at the venue we took an on the bike selfie (we were still moving at the time Jim) and then I disembarked whilst Pichchip lined the bike up alongside the other 2.


A couple of the volunteers were eager to have a go and hopped on to head off whilst the rest of us stood around chatting.  And then it was my turn.  I handed my phone to Totie – obviously the most important part of this whole day was making sure it was documented in pictures) and hopped on the bike.


Pichchip talked me through starting her up, we shouted at Totie to move out of the way as she was positioned right in front of us, so fixated was she on getting the best shots, and then we were off.  Unfortunately for Pichchip I forgot to tell him that I’d ridden a bike before and so for a few seconds he hung on to the back to steady me as I accelerated away before finally realising that I was confident and letting go.


I bombed round the carpark area (well if you can call chugging along at about 15mph bombing) and had a play with the gears, mistakenly engaging the side stand rather than going down from 3rd to 2nd at one point.  No harm done, I sailed back towards the watching volunteers waving as I hurtled towards them before turning to do another loop.


Feeling confident I parked the bike up and got off and miraculously even remembered to take my glasses off before removing my helmet thus avoiding a comedy moment once more.

Next up was Totie and the poor girl was petrified.  Morecambe and Wise did a supportive double act as she started the bike up and then it all went a bit Pete T`ong.  ON being told to exelerate Totie did as she was told, just rather too harshly.  All we could see is Totie bombing off as Pichchip screamed at her to stop and Totie screamed back How all the while hanging on to the throttle for dear life.


Fortunately the 2 of them escaped unscathed and after a break to calm her nerves Totie successfully managed to master the bike, even managing to look up and in front of her at one point rather than doggedly staring at the dash as Pisit told her when to turn.

All in all the morning was a lot of fun.


Will I drive a motorbike in Phnom Penh? Not on your nelly!


Will I ride one in the provinces? Well maybe.


Will I remember totie and Pichchip’s screams?  For as long as I live!

Sucky times!

We have finally entered what can be described as the rainy season here in Cambodia and with it we’ve moved from brief heavy showers (an hour or so a day) to more prolonged periods of heavy rain, with the dark grey skies and dull light resonant of Manchester, but with added heat and humidity (and a hell of a lot more electrical storm activity too).


The weather change has also brought with it a change in my health.  It started with sweating.  Nothing unusual there, hot and sweaty is my default state, but this week it’s felt different – a kind of cold extreme clamminess, an almost permanent hot flush eek!!  And then I got the mother of all headaches.  And so I took to my bed and I slept and hallucinated and woke and threw up and slept and hallucinated and woke and got up and went dizzy and sat down again and sweated (cold and clammy) and blah blah blah.


And in amongst this minor sucky shite happening in my life, my friends are hurting. Both here in Cambodia and in the UK, people I care about deeply are dealing with some really crappy stuff and that sucks.


In trying to deal with stuff this week I’ve learnt something.  I’m craving the real, deep, face to face connections that I have with my friends and family and with only more superficial connection as my mainstay I have found myself struggling to stay positive.  As my headache worsened and more bad news arrived my mood blackened and I could feel myself sinking.


So today when I woke I made a pledge to invite the positive into my life today and spend as much time as possible focusing on it.


To start, I revisited the photos I took of the amazing sky at sunset yesterday – the positive by product of the now shitty weather!  Check out the sunset below and if you want to see what we get hours and hours of before such sunsets click here:

I then took a good look at my skin in the mirror.  I may be sweating like a moose but by god my skin looks good as a result.  The sleep has also helped (even though it has been a bit trippy these past few days) leaving my eyes bright and the under eye bags all but gone.


And as I headed out to work I vowed to engage with my lovely new acquaintances on my route to work.  They may not offer me the deep connection I am craving but they do bring joy into my life, and today I captured a bit of that joy by taking a picture of each and every one of them – something that surprisingly they got as much pleasure from as I did, each of them asking to see their picture and grinning happily when I obliged.

As I sit writing this on my lunch break I’m planning a trip to ‘The Trafford Centre’ where I will indulge in a Costa Coffee for lunch, savouring each lovely, ridiculously expensive drop of it whilst reminiscing about the times in China when a rarely discovered nasty Nescafe 3in1 was the equivalent of this now readily available luxury.


Throughout the day I’m going to continue to try my best to bask in every moment of life and love and laughter that I am so fortunate to experience in my sweaty, clammy, slightly headachy and extremely rainy life.


And while I’m doing so I’ll hold a place in my heart for those I care about who are going through horrible, horrible stuff right now.


Love to you all xxx





Today I learned a new word – Operacy.  According to the great God Google, Edward De Bono defines operacy as being about action and the skill of thinking for action instead of thinking for description (proactive rather than reactive thinking).  If you’re interested in Operacy, this text links to a Powerpoint presentation about it.


Interestingly, as I came across this new word (it’s in a training needs analysis I’m trying to make sense of at work) I was at the same time thinking (always the consummate multitasker me) about what to write in today’s blog and believe it or not, was contemplating writing something about thinking – spooky eh!?


I spend a lot of my time thinking (or more accurately overthinking) things.  Stuff I see, hear and generally experience sloshes around in my head accompanying shite from the past, hypothesizing about the future, the cacophony of noise from my chimp Norman and occasionally the rational thoughts of my adult brain pop in to add to the mix too – a kind of hybrid of the proactive and reactive thinking that DeBono talks about.


In my blog strapline I talk about ‘becoming me’ and one of the aspects of this that I’m really enjoying is the developing ability to focus my thinking to make sense of my internal and external world.  By regularly practising meditation, engaging in periods of mindful activity and journaling I have given my brain some space and time out – a luxury it hasn’t often been afforded during my 46 years on this planet.  And I’m starting to reap the benefits.  Even though I still seem to think all the bl**dy time (remember this is the woman who is sitting here writing a blog about thinking) I feel a lot more able to sort out my thoughts, compartmentalize them, park them, discredit them and generally do stuff with them then move on thanks to a bit of downtime on the brain front each and every day.


If you, like me, fancy giving this hippy dippy sh*t a try, I highly recommend Insight Timer – the meditation App  and doing something arty: my oil pastel purchase last week was inspired leading as it has to hours of mindful scribbling, blending and generally messing about.  If neither of these float your boat there’s plenty more ways to give your brain a chance to breathe.  Find yours and you’ll hopefully soon be reaping the benefits of more operacy in your thinking just like me.


Kaht Sohk

Kaht Sohk – two small Khmer words that I left my apartment armed with today, along with a healthy dose of ‘f*ck it, I can do this’ floating around in my head.  Yep, it was time to get my hair cut and kaht sohk (roughly pronounced Ghut soh means cut hair).

Now, I want to share with you here that going to the hairdressers is quite a biggy for me.  In the UK I am hugely intimidated by hairdressers, just the thought of walking through the doors to be greeted by young confident, trendy young men and women scares the bejesus out of me let alone having to engage in small talk whilst they try to interpret my requested style (or don’t bother and do their own thing leaving me to lie and say I like it even though I hate the hell out of it but am too scared to say).  Thankfully I found the amazingly down to earth Yvonne (and Rebecca who latterly was responsible for my fabulous bleached look) at M3 Hair & Beauty (check them out if you’re local) early into my time in Manchester and so was saved from this torturous process for the last ten years, but here I was faced once again with finding a hairdresser, this time with the added discomfort of sticking out like a sore thumb and not speaking the lingo was not making for a relaxed approach.

The streets of Phnom Penh are teeming with hairdressers and barbers and for a week or so now I’ve been building up to this event, checking out places as I passed and deciding that the local market area looked like a likely place to get the job done.


So I headed down that way and approaching the first place I came to, muttered a confident Ghut Soh accompanied by melodramatic haircutting hand gestures (once an English teacher always an English teacher!) only to be greeted by a shaking of the head.  I’m not sure whether this was because the place wasn’t actually a hairdressers and was only a beauty salon (or god forbid a brothel), or, more likely the thought of cutting my weird short foreign hair filled them with dread and so it was easier to just say no.

Whatever the case, undeterred I marched (slowly obviously as it’s very sunny today and as humid as ever) around to the other side of the market where I’d been sizing up a likely suspect whilst on my lunchtime strolls in the week.

I headed in confidently, uttered the immortal words, Ghut Soh, and low and behold was greeted with a beaming smile from the four ladies within and a yes from the one sitting in the chair who was currently in the process of having her beutiful thick long black hair stripped back to add bright pink and purple streaks to it.


I asked how much it would cost (also in Khmer – woohoo get me) and sat down safe in the knowledge that whatever happened in the next half an hour I was only going to be $1.50 poorer at the end of it.


I sat patiently, sweating profusely until one of the ladies kindly repositioned the fan, as the rainbow streaking process was completed and then it was my turn.  Towel and gown on, I showed my hairdresser the picture of how my hair looks when it’s just been cut and we kicked off.


My hairdresser and photographer prepare to get to work

This lovely Cambodian lady took so much care and attention it was a joy to watch.  The concentration on her face was intense as she gently took a section of my hair, measured it and razored it carefully before placing it down and brushing it with her fingers to see how it lay.  At the same time one of her colleagues took photos for me and then for her boss (the rainbow hair lady sitting next to me).

The back completed, more water was sprayed (yes my baby fine hair had dried in the 5 minutes since she wet it for the first time) and the process continued around the fringe and sides.

All the time this was happening the girls were smiling and chatting happily whilst the guy out front played snippets of Cambodian pop tunes at full blast.   You can listen to a minute of this annoying tune flipping exercise here (if the sign in or register with dropbox message appears close it and you should be able to play it)


Every cut was handled with care and precision (and photographed for posterity)

We then moved on to the top and there was much hilarity as she finished cutting a section only for it to remain bolt upright Mohican style.  Photos were taken before the sections (there were now 3 Mohawks) were carefully laid back, my hair was brushed gently and the whole process was over.


Two out of three mohawks in place

I happily handed over 2 dollars, refused my change and headed out of the hairdressers happy with the first of many haircuts I will no doubt be getting in Cambodia.


Happy with my first haircut in Cambodia (My hairdresser looks pretty pleased too!)



Zen as F**k

On Thursday I was privileged to be given Reiki by my lovely friend Alex who has been staying with me for a few days before leaving to explore the rest of Cambodia this morning.  As a result, Thursday night was only my second night of uninterrupted sleep since arriving in Cambodia 7 whole weeks ago and I woke yesterday feeling amazingly energised and refreshed.


Last night my sleep was only interrupted once by that woman of a certain age need to pee and after having obliged my bladder’s request I slept until the amazingly late hour of 7am this morning waking feeling once again refreshed and energised.


That said, I had already decided that today would be a do nothing kind of day and I was excited to indulge myself in the joy of just being.


On a whim, but partly in anticipation of today I think, I had yesterday purchased some oil pastels and paper.  I’m not sure why I chose oil pastels as I am by no means an artist, but they seemed like quite a cool thing to try using and they were pretty cheap too (ever the thrifty volunteer me!).  I also purchased an oil burner from the Japanese $1.90 shop (that is so not as catchy a name as Poundland but it’s the best we’ve got here so just go with it) so that I could burn some oils in my outdoor lounge to serve the dual purpose of smelling nice and also repelling the bugs.


After breakfast, I lit the burner adding a mix of lavender and tea tree and got out my oil pastels to give them a go.  For the next couple of hours I totally immersed myself in the process of playing with colour and lines, mixing, smudging, blending and generally having a fantastic time.  The results were mixed – a couple of absolute monstrosities and a couple of pieces I’m really chuffed with, but regardless of results I loved every mindful moment of the process and will certainly be indulging again some time soon.


Some of my more successful artwork

Next in operation zen as f**k was a film.  But don’t panic, I didn’t go for some highbrow thought provoking indi movie, oh no, in true Sara style I chose that classic of cinematography – Sex and the City.


For the next 2 hours I laughed and cried at all of the parts that I laugh and cry at every time I watch the film (in case you’re wondering I have watched it a fair few times but have not yet achieved the holy grail of viewing instances that leads me to the ‘know every line off by heart’ stage as is the case with Pretty Woman!!!) totally immersed in the lives of the fictional New York ladies who previously wonderfully filled many an empty hour for me during my time living in China.


Trash TV gene satisfied, I then indulged in a fabulous ½ hour of meditation on my mat on the terrace.  I’m a big fan of a free app called Insight Timer which has thousands of free meditations and talks and today I chose a delightful chakra cleansing meditation that Totie had recommended.


Cleansed and even more zen than I already was I’ve spent the rest of the afternoon in conversation with friends and family interspersed with periods of listening to random playlists on Spotify, discovering some great music and not even having to resist the urge to multitask as it hasn’t crossed my mind to.


So there you have it.  As I finish writing this and prepare to cook my dinner (an omelette or an egg sandwich (can’t quite decide which)) I am officially feeling as zen as f**k and looking forward to another glorious night of deliciously restorative sleep after some relaxing yoga and another film (title as yet unknown).


Om shanti xx

From the sublime to the ridiculous


I went for a wander at lunchtime today, taking a different route for a change.  I found myself in a labyrinth of lanes behind the main drag and smack bang in the middle of weird and wonderful discoveries.
Whilst stopping to photograph a cute little shrine complete with mini monks sitting inside I heard a male voice calling “hello lady”.  On turning round I encountered a group of 2 men and a woman sitting around a low table drinking beer.  “Come join” the guy was calling, “drink, Chinese festival, drink beer”.  Despite my protestations that I had to go back to work he scrabbled round under the table and pulled out a can of Cambodia beer which he started to open.  I protested again and this time, with a slight shrug, he accepted I wasn’t going to take a drink and started pouring the can into his own, already half full, cup which soon started overflowing all over the table and floor.  The whole group corpsed with laughter and I quickly scurried off before more madness could occur.


The shrine that led to the beer incident

50 yards further on and a group of boys caught my attention.  One of the boys had a lit cigarette in his hand which he was jabbing towards the top corner of the gate they were standing in front on.  Looking more closely I discovered what they were jabbing and jeering at – there was a monkey chained up in the corner behind the gate.  I couldn’t quite work out if the boys wanted the monkey to smoke the cigarette or they intended to burn him with it but either way the monkey was getting wound up and so I made another sharp exit.


The boys goading the monkey

Further in to the labyrinth I peered in to shops and homes, nearly tripped over rice drying in the street and encountered the usual gaggle of tuktuk drivers all vying for my business at one of the crossroads.


Danger rice drying ahead!

And then I turned a corner and boom! it was like I’d entered a parallel universe.  I was on the set of The Truman Show.  Having been immersed in a maze of old, shabby, ramshackle houses and buildings I had arrived in a newly built (well half built), artificial looking gated community complete with streets tweely named Acacia Street and the like!  The half finished houses were painted in muted peachy pink tones and the whole estate had a ‘showhome’ unreal look to it.  I turned around to see a raised boulevard of shops and beauty parlours complete with a foreign couple and their blonde haired baby pushing a trolley along as they window shopped.  This was all too much for me!   I looked frantically for the exit and once I’d spotted it darted towards and through it as fast as the incessant heat and humidity would allow only stopping when I was safely ensconced back in the shabby old Phnom Penh that I’ve come to know and love.

Ghost Town

Monday in the office was a little quiet.  When I asked where my boss was, the smiley man in the office told me he had gone home.


On Tuesday my neighbour Danith declared the office to be quiet – he had apparently been roaming the floors, popping in to offices to chat to people but only a few admin people were there.


Today I have come in and the office is like the proverbial ghost town.  Most of the doors are firmly closed, lights are off and there is hardly a soul wandering the corridors.  Even my trusty partner in crime – Danith – is nowhere to be seen.


So, I headed over to the EU office to quiz Bert about the absences only to find his door locked too – damn!


Frustrated, I decided to stick my head around the general EU office door to find 2 lovely ladies sitting working away.  I asked where Bert was and discovered he’s gone on a mission (the word mission is used here to describe a trip out to the provinces, not some jehovahs witness style mass conversion attempt).


Buoyed by the friendliness of the ladies I was talking to, I decided to investigate the reason for the Fisheries ghost town.


It turns out that today is a major Chinese festival, wait for it ….


The Hungry Ghost Festival!!


And with this revelation a lot of stuff I’ve seen today now makes sense.  The newly dressed shrines in houses all over the city even though Buddha Day is not until tomorrow, the group of people throwing paper money and other offerings into a huge kettledrum fire as we sped down Mao Tse Tung Street on the way to the airport.


Caught this pic of the firepit on the way to the airport

And most importantly, the fact that, despite my colleagues being Cambodian and not Chinese, a large majority of them have dug deep into their heritage to claim 1/32 Chinese Ancestory in order to take not just the day off, but the first half of the week to offer Oreos and the like to the hungry ghosts to appease the sufferings of said ancestors.

Gotta love the Kingdom of Wonder!


Offerings for the ghosts