The penultimate day

Today marks my penultimate day as a VSO volunteer working in the Ministry of Fish.  As I walked to work this morning I pondered the list of things I would be party to for the penultimate time today.  Things like:

  • The good morning, how are you roll call as I head down the lane
  • Playing hide and seek with the little Singaporean girl heading to school with her mum
  • Hitting my head on the tree (yep 7 months on and I still haven’t learned!)
  • Smiling and greeting my posse of pals en route to the office
  • Never knowing what sights will greet me as I wait for the lights to turn red and venture across the road (today it was the Cambodian National Lion Dance team on the back of a pick up truck)
  • Getting a coffee from the van next to the Philippine Embassy and proceeding to get indigestion from drinking it too fast (still not learnt that one either!)
  • Being laughed at by the tuktuk driver with the bloodshot eyes outside the Ministry of Fish
  • The wild gesticulations of Huong the gateman as he demands to try on my glasses, drink my coffee or nick my phone whilst simultaneously sampaying and grinning from ear to ear
  • Being the first person to arrive on my floor of the building and sitting wondering if anyone else will in fact turn up that day or if the call of the hungry ghosts will once more take them away
  • Performing my duties as unofficial marriage counsellor to members of the Cambodian Civil Service
  • A cheery good morning, how are you? from Danith as he arrives in the office before dashing off out to yet another meeting
  • Getting half way to the loo before realising I’ve forgotten loo paper and having to trek back
  • Noodling about on the internet quite a lot (pretty sure it’s not the penultimate time I’ll do this but it will no longer be in the FiA offices)
  • Packing up and leaving early safe in the knowledge that a large proportion of staff in the building will have left before me (or not even returned from lunch) and noone will notice (or care) that I’ve gone regardless

My time with VSO hasn’t been as fruitful, fulfilling and life changing as I might have wished but I’m so thankful to have had the opportunity to build up this wonderful routine of banal and bonkers over the past few months and will certainly mourn the loss of parts of it as I transition to the next chapter of becoming me.


Gotta love a bargain

I’ve always been a thrifty lass.  From an early age I learned to sniff out the yellow sticker aisle in the supermarket and the bargain bins in shops thanks to a frugal mum and mama and I pride myself in telling you what an amazing deal I got on whatever item of clothing you choose to compliment me on.

Whilst thrift usually pays off, sometimes it jumps up and bites me on the bum.  Take Sunday for example. A friend here suggested we go for a massage.  Hell yeah, just what my sitting too much, lumpy mattress hating body needed.  And when she suggested a place her neighbours had recommended that was offering a 50% discount well thrifty Sara’s eyes lit up.

A nice clean and fresh smelling place.  Light, bright and airy and an entertaining sign on the door to our massage room (have to say I was a bit gutted not to be able to use my drung but thems the breaks!)  meant I was in a positive frame of mind when the massage began.


We changed into our fisherman pants and tunic uniform and settled down to wait.  The masseurs arrived and through a process of hand signals got us lying in the right position for what was to come.

It started off well, non of that namby pamby light touch stuff but plenty of firm kneading and pressing with copious use of the elbows in some particularly gnarly spots.  However, as the massage went on I began to question my masseur’s competence.  In between random heavy pressure massage movements which didn’t seem to be mirrored from left to right there were moments of pure oddness where she just kind of pinched my bicep from shoulder to elbow.  After a while she then proceeded to add another layer of bizareness to the massage by repeating this pinching movement on my calves whilst alternately kneeling on or prodding at, my feet.  All of this despite having specifically asked for a back neck and shoulder massage.  For 45 minutes I endured the interspersion of randomness with massage all the while being forced to lie with my head turned to one side on a rather too fluffy, and therefore high, pillow.

Needless to say when my masseur grunted and gestured that she wanted me to turn over my neck was more than a little bit stiff and I wasn’t at all convinced that my shoulders had benefitted from the positioning either.  However, I had a good old wriggle about, did some shoulder shuffles and neck wobbles and tried to convince myself that I did actually feel refreshed.

And just at that point, the bizarre became absolutely ridiculous. My masseur slapped an ice cold flannel on my face (to be fair it was very refreshing and smelt lovely and minty) and proceeded to perform a very odd rubbing movement with her thumbs between my eyebrows.  She then had a bit of a poke and prod into my shoulders with her elboxs before ending the massage by performing the hair tug tango.  This involved grabbing tufts of my hair and pulling them sharply to a one two three beat whilst I just lay there pondering what the actual f*ck was going on.

Two days on I have random bruises where her ‘massaging’ was over zealous, am still pondering why the hell I let her go on with the ridiculous charade, but on the plus side am only $5 worse off – gotta love a bargain!


My Facebook feed is a veritable feast of weather related woes at the moment.  Friends in Spain are experiencing unexpected snow, Aussies are bemoaning the hottest summer temperatures for years, on a small Greek island high winds have attacked a telegraph pole threatening the islands connections to the outside world and the Brits are, as usual, moaning about cold, rain, snow, ice and everything else weather related  whilst simultaneously taking the p*ss out of those who report on it in my beloved homeland.

Meanwhile, here in Cambodia we don’t have winter.  As we are in the Northern hemisphere I guess it is officially winter but here we opt for a more simple descriptive to label the months of November to March with – the Dry Season.

Before I arrived I’d convinced myself (with the help of guidebooks and internet resources) that the dry season was the better of the two options here simply because it doesn’t rain.  But other than that I had little idea what to actually expect.

And I have to say, three months in I’m pleasantly surprised by what’s occurred.

We got off to a hairy start as the day of mum’s arrival in Cambodia back in early November saw us experiencing an un precedented around 12 hours of solid rain – erm hello!?!?!?! dry season!?!?!?!

Thankfully,  4 hours before mum arrived the rain buggered off and the dry season began to truly live up to its name.

So, here’s a lovely list of my top ten highlights (and a couple of lowlights for balance) of the dry season in Cambodia:

  1. The dawn chorus is getting more amazing as each day goes by. I live in the centre of a busy, noisy capital city and yet I’m greeted by stunning bird song as I wander out onto my balcony every morning.
  2. Lower humidity means less changes of clothing required, less embarrassing sweat patches to be disguised and generally less sweaty yuckiness all around
  3. A high of 32 degrees today with a gentle breeze and wall to wall sunshine – say no more!
  4. I can wear my best flip flops and not worry about them getting wet which would dull the sparkliness as has happened to my second best ones!
  5. The water levels in the rivers and lakes are definitely falling but the land still has a lushness to it and there’s plenty of greenery to be found
  6. The sudden fragrance of the beautiful frangipani flowers wafting on the ever present breeze (oooh that’s a bit poetic isn’t it!)
  7. I don’t need to have the air conditioning on all the time in my office.  A quick blast in the morning when I arrive and another after lunch is usually enough to keep my office at a comfortable temperature to work in
  8. Because the very uneven and sometimes untarmaced roads and pavements aren’t full of puddles I can actually look up when I walk around the city and admire the varied and sometimes bonkers scenery
  9. And while we’re on the subject of walking, I’m getting everywhere just that little bit faster thanks to the lower humidity and thus lesser fear of arriving at my destination resembling a bedraggled sweat drenched bag lady
  10. The demented duck geckos (Officially called Tokay geckos I think) aren’t as prevalent in the dry season meaning more unbroken sleep thanks to the lack of their constant quacking song.

And now for the minuses:

  1. There are more mosquitoes.  Probably partly down to the lack of Tokay geckoes but regardless, this is not what I expected and I am suitably unimpressed – cue furious scratching as yet another bite is discovered!
  2. The temperature drops at night and so I now wake up cold at about 2am every morning and have to scrabble around to find the blanket to pull over me.  No doubt the smart readers among you will have noticed that this fact makes number 10 in my list of pluses an out and out lie #sorrynotsorry
  3. The sun doesn’t rise until after 6am meaning I now have to rely on my alarm clock to wake me up leading to a slightly more grumpy Sara than I would like in the mornings (until the birds start singing of course then normal service is resumed)


So there you have it.  The ups and downs of winter in the Kingdom of Wonder.  Wrap up warm folks!



Chips with Cheese and Gravy

It happened in the coffee shop on Sunday morning.  In fairness, I only just managed to stop it happening in the Trafford Centre the Friday before at lunchtime, a well timed glance up stopping me from humiliation.  To be honest, it’s probably happened more than once before, so unaware am I of this embarrassing little habit of mine.

I blame my mum.  Hours of listening to radio 2 whilst growing up have led to me develop a passion for easy listening music or what I term chips with cheese and gravy, music that, like the food, is so wrong but yet so right.

Nothing wrong with enjoying a few guilty pleasures Sara I hear you say.  And I agree, there isn’t.  I love listening to the radio in the morning before and during work (yep, it is radio 2) I’ve got countless playlists in my Spotify account (including one called chips with cheese and gravy) which I listen to at any given opportunity and I have some lovely relaxing music that I fall to sleep to most nights.

And I’m constantly singing in my head. I get an ear worm (sometimes from a song on the radio, others from a phrase I utter or something I see) and sing it incessantly to myself as I go about my day until such point as another song cue comes along to displace it.

All well and good again, that is until my internal voice becomes becomes external and I find myself harmonising to Yesterday Once More by The Carpenters in the middle of Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf on Street 57 in Phnom Penh at 1130am on a Sunday morning.

I first knew something was amiss when the woman to the left of me dropped a teaspoon. I turned to look to see her staring at me open mouthed and it was then I realised.  I grinned sheepishly before sinking down into my chair and turning to look  in the other direction.  Sadly, my crooning hadn’t gone unnoticed by the group of Cambodian teenagers on my right either.  They sat giggling away before one plucked up the courage to express “beautiful singers” followed by a nervous giggle.

Mortified, I hastily packed up my stuff and made my way to the door.  The staff behind the counter smirked, yep I’m pretty sure they heard me too and I’m also pretty positive that as I scuttled out of the door it wasn’t just Karen Carpenter’s dulcet tones I could hear uttering the immortal ‘every shalalala…’


Needless to say, I didn’t go back to find out and will be making more of an effort to keep my passion for singing along to chips with cheese and gravy tunes well and truly inside my head in future.

That was the week that was

Back in my little haven of calm (and bat poo and upturned cockroaches) I’ve had some time to decompress and reflect on a bonkers week with the ministry of fish.

I won’t kid you, it’s been tough.  There were moments of joy to be had but I really had to dig deep  to find them. It sometimes felt like a very lonely journey and that forced me to delve into my personal resilience bag of tricks on a number of occasions.  But I made it to the end and along the way I learnt some stuff too.  Here’s a snapshot of what I learned:

  1. Poor Sophea is not just a bit of a numpty and an object of pity.  He is, in fact, Frank Spencer’s Cambodian twin brother.  Mannerisms, vocalisations the works, it’s been there all along staring me in the face, but it took a week spent in close proximity with him for me to finally recognise it. No idea who Frank Spencer is? Check him out here: Frank Spencer
  2. I am not cut out to work with people who don’t ‘get it’.  I need to be in the company of people who want to learn, who are excited to try out new stuff and engage in the process.
  3. For someone who doesn’t suffer foold gladly I did a bloody good job over the last 5 days!
  4. Pursat is the armpit of Cambodia.  Despite trying really hard to find an endearing feature during my 2 days there I failed miserably and don’t intend to return in a hurry.
  5. None of what transpired over the week is because I am not good at my job.  I did the best I could in pretty meh circumstances and, despite despairing at times, I hung on in there and persevered in trying to make the week the best it could be right to the bitter end.
  6. My team may be numpties but they’re my numpties.  And it’s thanks to them that I have had such a rich vein of material from which to extract my blog posts this week.
  7. Sitting in the front seat of the minivan may mean I don’t have to experience the excruciating discomfort that is a group of Cambodians not knowing what to say to me but it does mean that each and every one of my nerves will be shredded as we hurtle our way at full pelt towards Phnom Penh with no respect whatsoever for other road users.
  8. It wasn’t all bad.  In the second group a few trainees asked intelligent questions and were genuinely interested in the aspects of leadership psychology that we covered.  They really engaged with the reflective exercises and could see how they could use them in their work with their teams.  From little acorns great oak trees will grow maybe.
  9. I learnt (and then promptly forgot) the words to help me distinguish between the sweet and savoury versions of the sticky rice snacks that are wrapped in leaves and all look the same.
  10. It was really all about the money (I knew this beforehand but some of the things I saw over the week served to further confirm it.  The training that I lovingly designed and shared was actually just a conduit for 40 plus Cambodian civil servants gaining access to the equivalent of roughly 1/2 their monthly salary through the daily subsistence allowance (DSA) payments they received for attending/delivering the training.
  11. I’m really glad my placement ends in 16 days because I don’t think I could go through all of that again and come out of it in one piece.

Well, I suppose I did say I wanted to become me one crazy adventure at a time.  Guess I should be careful what I wish for eh!?!?

And finally…

I’ve skipped a couple of days.  Wednesday we were on the move and if you want to know more about how that went, you can read about it here: Travelling circus

Thursday saw training kick off once more.  There was a rerun of the 3 stooges act, only this time there were only 2 as hairy chin was deemed too busy to attend by our esteemed Director General.  Sophea also appeared to have grown a pair of balls during the four hour drive to Pursat and introduced both the programme and myself & Loueng with a confidence I’ve never before seen him display.

As the day wore on it became apparent that the numpties were finally getting into their stride, helped along by a significantly more engaged and supportive cohort of trainees.  Loueng had obviously been doing his homework as he explained the models  and engaged the trainees in activities with a new found confidence and a distinct lack of nervous laughter.   Even Sophea and Nai were up front helping out, supporting both Loueng and the trainees.

I, on the other hand, was wilting.  Battling a stonking headache I eventually retreated to lie in my darkened room, not the first time this has occurred this week but the only time due to physical rather than emotional needs!

Friday morning and the power of paracetamol sees me ready to face the day – slightly trepidatious over what may have transpired in my absence.


It didn’t start well.  I arrived to the room at 8am to find no one else there.  But apart from that I didn’t need to worry.  When the trainees did rock up they were keen and eager to start.  Loueng had collated outstanding questions (intelligent ones at that) from the session I missed the previous afternoon and we had a healthy and fruitful discussion about the learning so far.

And then the team went fully into action once more.  And I have to be honest, I did shed a little tear (I blame hormones as always).  I was watching my little ducklings finally swim.  After hours of gentle coaxing, cajoling and prodding (coupled with a lot of internal ranting, raving and soul searching) they’d finally got it and were out there doing their stuff, turning my training into a workshop that their colleagues could learn and grow from.  A truly proud moment (and if I’m totally honest, one I NEVER thought would happen!)

Travelling Circus

Wednesday is a no training day.  Instead, we are on the move.  One of the quirks here at the Ministry of Fish is that when we need to deliver training to Provincial staff we drag them all in to Phnom Penh for 3 days and when Phnom Penh staff need training we ship them out to some province or other, sometimes strategically chosen, other times a pin in the map random choice.

I’m sure I don’t need to tell you which of the above options led us to be heading out to Pursat, which the Lonely Planet, rather generously in my opinion, describes as “no beauty”.

A four hour road trip from Phnom Penh, I am thankfully not subjected to the minibus carrying the trainees, Sophea and his gang, instead bagging front seat in the 4by4 pickup with Loueng and his chosen travelling partners.  Much as I was pleased to be in the front, I’m under no illusion as to why this was orchestrated.  Nope, not because my legs are the longest of the whole group and nope, not because I’m the only female, but instead because placing me in the front seat means my colleagues don’t have to engage in conversation with me (nor I with them) for the duration of the trip.  I plug in to my BBC radio player and bask in the opportunity for a marathon catch up session which is somewhat challenged by the discovery that I am accompanied on this journey by the loudest 3 Cambodians in the whole country.  Not only do they talk for the whole 4 hours, but they do so at a volume more suited to a group standing next to the main speaker at V Festival.  I crank up the volume until the red “your volume is too high” warning flashes on my screen and then crank it up some more, eventually resorting to placing my fingers on my headphones to hold them into my ears and magnifying the sound.  It dawned on me at one point that striking this pose did in fact make me look like I was holding my head in my hands in despair – ironic really when it was perhaps one of only a few points in the last 3 days when despair hasn’t been my go to emotion.

We finally hit Pursat and our home for the next 3 nights – The Century Hotel.  The lobby is huge, dark and filled with massive, ugly wood carvings and a vague smell of damp fills the air.  Yes, it is indeed exactly like every budget hotel I’ve had the dubious pleasure to stay in in Asia.

Having ascertained a rendevous time (7.30am Cambodian time aka 8.15am rest of the world time) and location for the morning I head to my room.  Like the lobby before it’s dark and gloomy and vaguely damp smelling but here we have the added bonus of karaoke booming in from the building next door.  The thought of a crap night sleep followed by another day at the leadership training circus fills me with dread.  I’m going to need to get my emotional armour sorted if I’m going to survive this!


A breakthrough?

It came at 11.01am.  It came just in time.  My ability to remain positive was wearing thin and my desire to hurt somebody becoming overwhelming when suddenly Loueng approached and uttered the immortal words….


“Sara, can you help me?”


And with that began the process of unpicking what was going wrong and working out what we could collectively do to make it go right again.


We discussed red shirt man and his and other trainees rude, disruptive behaviour.

We reflected on the problems that occur when you haven’t done the homework in relation to the subject you’re talking about.

We considered how we could better understand the material by applying the models and exercises to our own role and team.

We investigated how we could use the group to get things back on track.

We explored questions we might ask and who we might ask them of.


And then Loueng was back up front and, for reasons unknown to me, running some form of sweepstake which involved trainees trying to guess my highest and lowest scoring roles in the Belbin model.


And as I wept silently into my Macbook, a little bit more of me died inside