So much to say….

So not able to write!


Got a severe case of writers block when it comes to trying to document the last few days.  I’ve been at the VSO Cambodia Annual Volunteer Conference in Siem Reap and so much has happened that I want to tell you about but every time I sit down to write it the words just won’t come out.


And so, instead I’ve turned to a kind of wild writing, rambling approach to the block with a wait and see if anything materialises.  I’m literally typing this as I think it and not worrying too much about what I say (eek – nearly went back to edit then but that would have defeated the purpose wouldn’t it).


Siem Reap is the only place in Cambodia I had visited prior to arriving here in July.  I spent a wonderful 4 days touring the temples of Angkor and wandering the dusty streets of the tiny town of Siem Reap back in 2002 or 3 (I can’t remember exactly) being lulled by the sleepy feel of the place.


When I first arrived this time I wasn’t sure I was in the same place – boy has it changed.  So much development has occurred over the past 15 years in what is Cambodia’s premiere tourism spot.  I’m not sure I liked it at first sight but as I settled in to the rhythm of the days it felt better – yes there are now glitzy touristy bit complete with a strip of bars, restaurants and souvenir shops unimaginatively named Pub Street and reminiscent of the horror that is Khao San Road in Bangkok, but beyond that there is still beauty and serenity in the place.


It’s much greener than Phnom Penh, the place where we held our conference was awash with trees (there were actually signs all over the place (which I forgot to photograph) promoting the ‘one touirist (sic), one tree’ project in the province.  And away from Pub Street you’re soon back to the more familiar ramshackle mishmash of Cambodian shops, houses, street sellers and traffic on potholed roads, some paved but mostly red clay. A cacophony of smells, sights and sounds unique to Asia that I simply never tire of.


And so I returned to Phnom Penh happy to be planning trips to Siem Reap as a tourist with my fab family when they visit over the coming months.


And as for what comes next on the blog, well it appears my rambling has got rid of the what’s Siem Reap like strand in my head but as for the other countless strands from the past few days – who knows, how, if and when they’ll come out.  Watch this space is the best I have to offer.

PJ Day

I’ve got a bit of a diffent week ahead – a VSO Volunteer Conference in Siem Reap followed by the first big public holiday since I arrived here in Cambodia – Pchum Ben (Ancestors Day) – and so I decided that a relaxed weekend was in order.


Saturday involved my now regular visit to the pool (didn’t bother with the gym this week as I wasn’t feeling the love) followed by a veggi lunch, shopping and then home.


And as for Sunday.  Well, that was  pure PJ day.  Writing this as I am first thing on Monday morning I am still in said PJs, I officially stink, but am basking in the the joy of a pure ME day.


It started with a lie in – 8.45am no less – followed by a long luxuriant breakfast to accompany the last few chapters of my book (I am loving the amount of reading I do out here – I generally devour at least 1 if not 2 fiction books per week as well as dipping in and out of non-fiction stuff both in book and web form).


Next up was a bit of TV watching – caught up on the latest series of Cold Feet and then watched the film Wild (not bad but how on earth did she keep her hair looking so flipping good!?!?!) and then dipped in to a Netflix series ‘Easy’.


And then I got crafty.  As you may know, Vicky and I have a monthly craft challenge going and this month the challenge was metal.  I managed to find some coloured craft wire at the $1.90 Japanese store in the Trafford Centre and so I sat for an hour or so creating twists and swirls and turning them into hanging shapes to adorn my apartment.  I also cut up a t shirt I bought for 50 cents from another Japanese gem in the city – DonDon Down Second-Hand Stores – to make a necklace and a headband (Kirstie Allsop has nothing on me I tell you).

The times in between were spent sweating (well actually all of the times were spent sweating not just those inbetween as it was particularly humid yesterday), eating too much (I’ve got some stuff in my head I need to process and am using food as a way of avoiding doing so but more on that later) and listening to music.  The day was ended with a nice stretchy yoga session on the terrace (I needed it having sat/slouched for the majority of the day) after which I spent a good while examining at close quarters, a dragonfly who popped in for a visit followed by a half-hearted attempt at meditation (too much going on in my head to properly switch off) before bed.


A dragonfly who popped by

Unfortunately, after a week or so of more comfortable temperatures, particularly at night, the humidity seems to be ramping up again and that, coupled with a vaguely stinky feeling brought about by 24 hours in my PJs and a messy head led to a night of broken sleep.


Which brings me to here – tired, more than ready to get out of these disgustingly sweaty, stinky PJs, have a good long shower, and pack for a week of whatever comes along in Siem Reap.


The PJs 

Watch this space – who knows what’s coming.



Curtain Man

I live in the land of bonkers. I’ve grown accustomed to giggling to myself at the sights and sounds (and sometimes smells too) of Phnom Penh on an almost daily basis.  I’ve come to expect the unexpected and am becoming pretty unshockable.


But then today happened.  Having had an enjoyable lunch in a rather trendy café 10 minutes or so from my office, I set off to walk back and that’s when it occured.


As I avoided the calls of tuktuk and moto drivers intent on making me use their services I gazed upon a sight that threw me.  There, a few feet away, in the middle of the street was a man walking along wearing a jacquard weave, peach curtain.  At this point I was only privy to a rear view and so I watched as he periodically spread his arms so the curtain flapped like a cape before wrapping it back around him.


And then he turned.  And yes, you guessed it – curtain man was stark b*llock naked underneath his ‘cape’.  He continued to flap his arms and twirl around, his manhood flailing around for all to see.  And that’s the bit that was really odd – it seemed like no one apart from me actually did see.


And no, it wasn’t that they were doing that ‘we’re pretending not to see’ thing that I was doing at the time.  The 30 or more people along the strip of road were genuinely totally unaware and/or uninterested in this poor chap.


I followed at a safe distance for a couple of blocks before curtain man wandered to the side of the road and behind a tree.


But this wasn’t the end.  Oh no, he then proceeded to drop the curtain on the floor and perform naked backbends behind the tree, each bend resulting in his penis flapping up and flopping back down melodramatically.


At this point I wandered on my way battling with a mixture of emotions.  Yes, I was amused, after all it’s one of those rare sights that threatens to knock the dead body appearing outside my apartment in Warsaw incident off its top spot on the WTF chart.


But more than amused I was confused and conflicted.


Why was that poor man in that state?  He didn’t seem intoxicated, he was walking steadily in a straight line and wasn’t calling out or being abusive but something was definitely amiss.


Where had he come from and where was he going to? Did he have a home?  Did he have someone to miss him?


And why did nobody out on the street apparently care?  Have the atrocities of recent years numbed these people to this extent?  Is mental health such a taboo subject that we totally ignore anything vaguely resembling it?  Or is it something else


And all of that made me incredibly sad.


Back in the land of fish, I’ve been furiously googling to try to get help for curtain man.  I even called a local mental health NGO (the only one in Cambodia I can find) but they don’t offer any outreach services and could only suggest directing him to the local public hospital (St Vicky was quick to point out that me doing this was not a good idea in case anyone’s worried I might go through with it).


Right now as I try to work out how to close off this post I’m reminded of my lovely homeless friend in Manchester, Dave.  Seeing him sleeping outside my flat for the first time, so vulnerable out in the sub-zero temperatures of a Manchester winter broke my heart.  I made him tea and butties and we struck up a friendship.  Dave called me his ‘Anjel’ but in truth I think he was mine.  He taught me so much about what is important in life just through his presence and his humility.


I can’t work out how to make a difference for curtain man just now but I know one thing, I’m not going to stop trying.   I need to find a way that I can help him and the presumably thousands more ‘invisible’ people living with Mental Health issues out here.


If anyone has any ideas of organisations I might contact or how I might otherwise go about helping I’m really interested to hear.

Captain Clueless

Captain Clueless works on my street.

This is him:



Every morning he arrives in his tuktuk plying for trade as people come and go in the lane.  He’s a friendly chap, always has a cheery hello and a how are you to say when he sees me (we’ve now progressed to high fives) and never fails to try to get me to take a ride in his tuktuk.


On the rare occasion when I do avail of his services the following happens:


I tell Captain Clueless (let’s call him CC for short), in broken Khmer admittedly, where I want to go to.


He responds emphatically, gesturing for me to jump in and refuting my requests of ‘how much’ indicating that it’s up to me.


We head off in vaguely the right direction.


At some point (usually between 1-3 minutes in to the journey) CC will turn in totally the wrong direction.


I will yell “Chop, Chop!” (it means Stop!) in a firm but friendly way and CC will turn to grin at me before adopting a puzzled expression.


I will repeat my request to go to wherever and gesture back in the correct direction with CC nodding vigorously as he performs a skilful 1 point turn oblivious to the oncoming traffic.


We will chug along happily for a few minutes until I realise that CC is going to keep going straight until I give further instructions at which point I will indicate for him to turn.


Having turned, I’ll again ask CC to stop and get out my trusty map (now tattered and torn through over use) to point out where we currently are and where we need to be.


I will repeat this at least 3 times before CC lets out a knowing Ah! Before diving under the seat for his own map.


We then repeat the process on his map with me locating and pointing out where we currently are and where we need to be.


We set off in the right direction, my map wedged under my leg for quick access if needed and CC’s propped in the seat back presumably for the same reason.


We eventually reach our destination, through a process of broken Khmer instructions, questioning glances in the wing mirrors, gesturing and possibly a touch of divine intervention.


Having arrived I give CC what I think is a fair price.  He nods, smiles and asks “what time go back?”

I reply (under my breath) “not on your bloody nelly mate – never again”, smile, shrug and head on my way vowing never to ask him again.


Until the next time that is.  After all, he is a nice chap.


Righteous Indignation

If a living could be made out of righteous indignation, I would sure as anything be sitting pretty by now.  Over the years I have mastered the art of railing against injustice, fighting the good fight and generally being annoyed at the world.  More recently I’ve tried really hard to temper my militant tendencies and have been heard on more than one occasion uttering the marvellous Polish Proverb “Not my circus, not my monkeys” as I fight the desire to jump in and fight for the underdog at every opportunity.


This week, for reasons I won’t go in to, righteous indignation came to visit me here in Cambodia and unfortunately this time it was my circus and it was my monkeys and so the battle commenced.


There was an increasingly profanity infused What’s App exchange with St Vicky which eventually led to a frantic tear filled What’s App call which St Vic handled with aplomb whilst squashed on a packed commuter train from Horwich to Manchester.


Her words made sense, she was giving good advice, I knew she was right but even so…..


Once I was alone in my office Norman arrived full of bluster and kicked off.


“Well, you handled that well!” he snarled, sarcasm oozing from every pore, “Bloody drama queen, crying!” “Made a right fool of yourself!”


Unfortunately for Norman, righteous indignation (lets call her Ria) has a voice of her own and that voice booms much louder than anything Norman can muster when she’s in full swing.


“It’s a bloody disgrace!”

“I cannot believe they’ve done this!”

“It’s disgusting!”

“I’m fuming!”

“I’m not putting up with it!”


Indignant statements exhausted, she then moved on to ‘I’m going to…’ as, like a meeting of script writers for an EastEnders meets Emmerdale Christmas special, increasingly melodramatic scenarios played out in my head as Ria planned revenge and ways to right the wrong.


And suddenly, in amongst the noise of righteously indignant Ria and shrieking Norman the Chimp I noticed her. There she sat, quietly cowering, not daring to come out and show herself.


The true Sara.


The one that was ever so sad and just a little bit lonely, but as usual swamped by the much more comfortable feelings of anger in the form of righteous indignation and self-loathing.


She deserved my attention and so for once I used righteous indignation to my advantage.  I quickly and quietly chided Norman and Ria for storming in as usual and stomping all over my true feelings.


And then I got on with the really important stuff.  Acknowledging the sadness, being kind to myself and healing the hurt.


And a couple of days on I’m pleased to say I’m healed.  And by allowing the sadness space and dealing with it the anger and frustration subsided too and I’m able to move on.


Flipping heck, it’s like I’m becoming a grown up!!!!!!





Silk and Stories

When I first arrived in Phnom Penh, Totie and the gang raved about a trip they’d just taken to a place called Silk Island – only a short tuktuk trip from the city – and so this weekend Vicky and I thought we’d try it out for ourselves.


Sophat rocked up at 6.30am and we were off.  Vicky and I passed the first part of the journey catching up on the week just gone and before we knew it we were on the Japanese Friendship Bridge crossing the Ton Le Sap river (one of 2 that wends its way through Phnom Penh.  The tuktuk took a little cajoling to haul its load up the pretty steep incline of the bridge but none the less it made it breathing an almost audible sigh of relief as we free wheeled down the other side.


A further brief tuktuk journey and we arrived at the port ready to cross the Mekong.  Now, please be aware I use the word port with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek as really what we arrived at was a gateway leading to a steep muddy, gravelly ramp to the water’s edge.


A ferry was just departing as we arrived so we wandered down to watch it and spotted that there was in fact another ferry ploughing its way slowly back to us, meaning our wait wouldn’t be too long.


Once the ferry docked the ramp had hardly been lowered before a stream of motorbikes, tuktuks and foot passengers made their way off the ferry and then we were on.

Taking a seat on the top deck (it had to be done) we gently made our way across the Mekong on a quick 5-10 minute jaunt to the island.


Once again the disembarkation was swift, so swift in fact that we nearly found ourselves heading back to the city being the tardy Brits that we are.  We did make it onto land and hopped back into the tuktuk to explore.


Before long we had been ‘adopted’ by a woman on a motorbike who chatted to Sophat (presumably convincing him to take us to her home) and invited us to view her weaving silk.  She had fab English (enough banter without being annoying), a cheeky smile and tenacity – all good as far as I’m concerned and so off we went.


All I can say is bl**dy hell, making silk fabric is one labourious process.  The women spend 8 days weaving just one 4 metre length by hand, carefully adjusting the loom with each weave to ensure the intricate pattern is correct.


We watched for a while whilst our host chatted to us and started to ply her wares.  Vicky was targeted to try on a skirt which fit her perfectly and so the haggling began.  Mrs Tenacious offered us a discount for bulk buying which was all the encouragement I needed to choose a scarf for myself and, having agreed not to tell the people further on the great price she’d given us, we settled on a price and headed off.

There is only one main road on the island and it’s still under construction.  Cue comedy moment as Sophat attempted to get the tuktuk with Vicky and I onboard up a steep kerb from the mud track to the concrete road.  Needless to say we quickly disembarked and manhandled the tuktuk up the step much to the delight of the gathered audience.


And then we were on our way again.  Wending our way down the island until we reached the beach.  Another tongue in cheek moment here as the ‘beach’ is actually waist high under water on account of us being in the midst of the rainy season.  We were shown to a riverside bamboo hut structure, a mat was laid down and our lunch order was confirmed (Sophat had warned us beforehand of the correct price and the likelihood of being scammed with a foreigner price and did a stirling job of forcefully getting the Cambodian rate for our chicken rice and veggies turning down a ‘commission’ for convincing us to pay more).

We spent a pleasant ½ hour or so chatting whilst dinner arrived, brought down to us in a basket replete with the individually wrapped components of our meal – a whole roast chicken, green veg cooked with pieces of liver, a huge bowl of rice and 2 lovely dips, one pepper and one chilli to accompany the meal.


I have to say that chicken was mighty fine, freshly cooked and pretty succulent considering how scrawny they are.  Sadly, the feet were slightly overcooked so we fed those to the gathered village dogs along with the head which neither of us felt like eating, despite Sophat trying to convince us it would help us think more creatively!?

After lunch it was time to chill – we sat watching the children play in the river (I still can’t get my head around them coming out of such muddy sludge just looking wet not muddy!), were entertained by some snack sellers who were pretty desperate to sell their wares (thankfully targeting Vicky as the best hope so I got to just sit and chuckle) and listened to Sophat wax lyrical about certain elements of Cambodian life (the Vietnamese featured heavily is all I will say here).

There was a short interlude where Sophat decided he would use one of his many phones to listen to an English lesson on parts of the body which took an alphabetical approach leading us from liver to moustache in one fell swoop and reached its pinnacle when it came round to the letter E again and boldly declared oesophagus.


Language lesson complete we were then treated to a number of increasingly bizarre tales, all of which Sophat ensured us were true.  My favourite is the story of the penguins that, having been rescued from the sea by a kindly South African looking tired and covered in oil, returned each year from their native Brazil??? to visit the kind man in South Africa to offer their thanks.  Apparently, we know this is true because it was on the internet translated into Khmer – so there!


Sophat the story teller showing us how it was determined whether children were old enough for school in the past

I’m really looking forward to seeing Vicky tomorrow, as, making no attempt to hide her incredulity (neither did I BTW) she has vowed to research each and every one of Sophat’s ‘true stories’ on Google to hopefully find evidence to validate our disbelief.


We must have been lounging in our hut for a good 4 hours (our rather red arms and legs would attest to it being too long) before the need for refreshment urged us to leave.  BTW, according to the Old Sage that is Sophat, according to legend whatever you believe is true Buddha will make true.  I tried out this theory by asking Buddha to make true the delivery of an Iced Coffee to our hut but was reliably informed by Sophat that the reason it failed is because I can’t just pick and choose when I believe – so maybe he’s not all full of hot air eh!?


Refreshed, firstly with water from a roadside stall and latterly in a gorgeously lush garden of a homestay guesthouse where I finally got my iced coffee, we made our way back to the ferry following slowly behind a road gang who were removing the leftover concrete pouring grids on the back of a pickup – taking up the whole road.  At this point it chose to rain and so Sophat got out his trusty brolly to cover the engine of the tuktuk and Vicky and I entertained ourselves watching the increasingly soggy convoy as it wended its way.

The ferry back was another comedy moment but I’ll save that for another day as there’s a video that highlights part of the event and it’s not downloaded yet.


Back on the mainland and an uneventful journey brought us home, tired but happy.


What a fab day discovering a lovely bit of paradise so close to home – I can’t wait to return!


It shall be so

In Cambodia as in the UK meetings are the life blood of the Civil Service.  In someways I’m pretty sure the meetings themselves are similar but there’s a whole other level of nonsense involved here that I’m loving observing and so I thought it was about time I wrote you a little list to give you the lowdown on meetings Ministry of Agriculture style;


  1. You will be notified about the meeting at best hours, generally minutes before and at worst minutes after the meeting has started that you are required to attend
  2. The meeting room will be replete with bottles of water, flower arrangements, (fruit and cakes in the main Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock offices but yet to appear in the Fisheries Administration (tight wads!) microphones and far too many chairs set in two circles – the inner and the outer. Important people sit in the inner circle, less important in the outer (nine times out of ten in the Ministry of Fish the outer circle is mainly women #gofigure).
  3. If the meeting is important one of the members of the outer circle will be charged with taking photos on their phone for posterity. If it is VERY important the official Ministry of Fish DSLR camera will be called for and operated by a member of the inner circle obviously!
  4. People wear aftershave for very important meetings.  Often too much and usually cheap by the smell of it!
  5. People wander into meetings when they feel like it (even the very important ones). A meeting scheduled for 2pm will probably not start til 3 and there will still be people missing.
  6. Everybody takes their phone into meetings and places it in front of them on the desk.
  7. Everyone answers their phone in meetings regardless of what is being said and by whom (even when they’re the whom who is speaking).
  8. Meetings at the Livestock component of the Ministry of Agriculture always return to the subject of buying pigs and chickens for farmers. This is the case whatever the discussion point or question raised.
  9. The equivalent in Fisheries is shaping up to be a closely fought race between community fishponds and commune elections. That is, of course, unless there are external bodies present in which case the plight of the Irrawaddy Dolphins trumps all comers.
  10. There is no such thing as an agenda (apart from everyone’s own agenda which usually involves pigs, chickens or fishponds as already noted).
  11. Meetings don’t officially end, people just begin wandering out as casually as they’ve wandered in. I assume this is because they have somewhere else to be rather than them just deciding they CBA to be there any more.
  12. Finding someone willing to translate meetings that are held in Khmer will prove a challenge as generally people are embarrassed to tell you what is truly being said! Including the fact that whoever is chairing the meeting has just told the translator not to translate what they’re saying!
  13. If anyone does dare to translate the next challenge will be hearing them over the noise of people answering their phones and the 5 different conversations that are generally going on around the table regardless of what or who is speaking.
  14. Most people at the meeting will take a couple of sips from their bottle of water (the outer circle don’t get any). Sara on the other hand will drink her own and then find a spare from somewhere and then spend the last hour of the meeting desperately needing a pee.
  15. The outcome of the meeting will be the agreement to have another meeting. Obviously, the date and time will not be agreed at this point and we will find out about the meeting hours or minutes before or minutes after it’s started!


Here endeth the lesson the rules of meetings Ministry of Agriculture style.


And it shall be so!

Playing at Life

An hour of yoga and meditation, a wander to the bank to get cash and then two hours spent reading whilst sipping really good coffee and munching on a smoked salmon and poached egg (slightly overdone sadly) bagel.  That’s what my Sunday morning looked like this week.


My Saturday morning had a similar decadent feel.  I headed to the gym before swimming for an hour, relaxing and reading in the sun and then heading off for a brunch of pancakes and syrup accompanied by delicious red tea with lime.


Afternoons were spent at home noodling, doodling and generally just being and the evenings pretty much the same.


The decadence of my weekdays is only interrupted by the routine of going to work.  But even that is decadent as the slow Cambodian pace and primitive understanding of effective learning and development strategy mean my work days aren’t overly challenging.


And whilst I’m aware of how privileged I am to have this lifestyle it doesn’t always sit comfortably with me.


Yesterday as the day wore on, questions and judgements started to swirl around in my head:


  • When will I get a real job?
  • Will I ever grow up and settle down?
  • Why can’t I find the drive and ambition that other people have?
  • People think what I’m doing is hard.  It isn’t and I’m a fraud.
  • I should be doing x, y and z.
  • Am I just playing at life?
  • Why am I so lazy?


I could go on but then I’ll just drag myself (and possibly you) back down with the constant recriminations.


And so instead I’ll share with you what I finally told that bloody Chimp Norman yesterday when I stupidly allowed him space in my head with all of those questions and digs:


Yes, I am playing at life and that is ok!  I express gratitude for my good fortune every day and hope that it will last for a long time to come.  This is my path right and now and if you don’t like it you can damn well bugger off and leave me to it because I’m having the time of my life.


And at that I made myself a soda and lime and sat down to indulge in some decadent TV viewing whilst Norman scuttled back to his dark corner where he belongs.