School finishes on Friday evening and starts again Monday at 1pm, so there are various trips to other parts of Cambodia that volunteers can book transport to, through Mikee.
Siem Reap, to visit the biggest temple in Cambodia, Phnom Penh to enjoy city life, Sihanoukville/Otres/Koh Rong for the beach lovers or Kampot for a relaxed, fun weekend. For my first weekend, I went with the majority and signed up for Kampot. We had such a great time, I went back for my second weekend too!
Both weekends were brilliant, for similar but different reasons.
First weekend was all new. I was travelling with a group of people I barely knew, to a place I had never been, staying in hostels (I was used to business hotels in Asia). The team on that first weekend knew what to do and where to go. As the hostels were booked earlier in the week, I stayed with the younger team who had kindly organised me a dorm room with them, at the Mad Monkey hostel. Mad by name, mad by nature. Had I been younger, I am sure I would have taken part in more of the drinking games, or the late night clubbing, but I left that to the “kids” on that first weekend. Yes, I enjoyed a beer or two with the team in the evenings, but there is so much to see in the area, I wanted to remember these times with a clear head.
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I thoroughly enjoyed the daytime moped rides up Bokor Mountain, stopping to take in the vistas as we rode up the smoothest road I had ever travelled along. Touring the old casino and church buildings from the French Colonial days, destroyed by the Khmer Rouge in the 70s, and left to remind people of the devastation those terrible times left behind. The Wat Sampeau Moi Roi statue, said to guide travellers, Popokvil waterfalls, slightly bereft of water due to it not being rainy season. The new, ugly, hotel and conference complex besmirching the otherwise wonderful views.
Sunday and five of us slightly older, volunteers rode over to Kep. A relatively straight run of 35km, interspersed only by torrential downpours, we enjoyed more of the countryside, roadside stalls, and maniac drivers, to reach our destination mid-afternoon. Slightly quieter than what we were to experience the following weekend! After a stop off at the beach and a walk round the town square, we enjoyed some fabulous sea-food, (Kep is famous for its seafood, in particular, crab), watched the most amazing sun-set and then rode back in the dark (an experience in itself).
Second weekend was different. Some of the older members of the group had moved on, and a new batch of young volunteers had arrived earlier in the week, and as I was now more ensconced within the team, I was able to use my “fatherly experience” to help and support this band of youthful, slightly naive, wanderers.
The plan for Saturday morning was to be up early, hire mopeds, and head off to Bokor once again. Unfortunately, once everyone finally appeared, it was clear some of the guys had never ridden before, so John and I had to put our teaching helmets on, and guide them in the art of safe moped-ing. John even demonstrated how to fall off, just so the newbies knew how to do it☺.
With some nervousness, we decided that the straight road to Kep was a more suitable learning experience for the convoy on day one, and with only two deemed unsafe to ride alone, John and I each took one as a passenger on our bikes and we set off, John as lead and me as support at the back. As we rode further, the growing confidence in the team was clear to see (especially from the back).
We arrived in Kep, on the day of the Kings birthday, when the roads, town square and beach were packed with holidaymakers and locals alike. With us being quite a large group, parking wasn’t easy, but we managed, with only one person falling off in the process (sorry Odetta).
A quick respite on the beach, lunch at a local bar/cafe (above), it was time to move on along another great piece of road, to a coffee shop that John knew, where we took on more refreshments and then headed back to Kampot.
As dusk and then darkness fell, one of the mopeds gave up the will to live, leaving a couple of us stranded while the others went to view local salt flats. Thankfully, the hire shop owner came out and offered a replacement scooter, and we headed back to the hostel, this time, Monkey Republic, for a cold beer and tales of the day.
After dinner, the plan was to head over to Naga House, a hostel on the other side of the river that, on Saturdays only, was a club night. I was persuaded to go, and it was a lovely evening. A riverboat sits beside the shore where you can sit on the roof, stare up at the stars, sit and chat, meet new friends or watch the revellers dance the night away, while enjoying a cold beer. A truly great night, and I am glad I was talked into it.
Sunday was the BIG ONE! Thirteen mopeds heading up Bokor Mountain, back to one of my favourite places on earth. Does life get any better?
Confidence was high as we set off late morning. The riders were so much more confident that the previous day. As we arrived at the petrol station that welcomes you to the entrance to Bokor National Park
(to give it its true title), everyone was buzzing. We filled up, filed through the toll gate, re-grouped and th
en headed off up the mountain.
I was still at the back, with Alice, my passenger, who had also grown in confidence, and as we got further up the road, one or two of the group signalled me – “Ian, you go on, you’ve been stuck at the back since yesterday, go and enjoy”. I didn’t need asking twice. As we passed each of our friends and colleagues, I asked if they were ok, “yes thanks”, “good”, and once again, we were off like a (125cc) rocket!
Having re-visited the usual tourist sites as mentioned earlier, we then decided to stop off at the new casino/hotel, an eyesore if ever there was one, to have a look round and have some food. Once again, the arrival of thirteen riders caused some bewilderment and amusement to many of the locals, but we all parked safely and made our way in.
Refreshments over (eventually), we made our way back down the mountain, to again re-group at the petrol station. Unfortunately, one of the team, Jess, had a slight altercation with a car, and arrived with heavily grazed knees and elbows. Whilst her pride seemed intact, these were clearly painful and needed attention – one should never leave open, untreated wounds in Cambodia, as the risk of infection is very high. John patched her up and we headed back to Kampot for a chilled out evening – for most.
Monday morning and it’s time to check out of Monkey Republic and wait for the minibus to take us back to Hope – one or two of the team had gone out late the previous night and were a little the worse for wear, but all agreed, it was a fantastic weekend.
My time spent in and around Kampot were some of the best of the trip and I have to say, of my life. Teaching the kids at Hope is truly fulfilling, life changing, and I am so glad I did it and it is wrong to compare or chose between the two experiences. The free-time away from the school is different. It allows you to un-wind, relax and enjoy life. Kampot is the perfect place to that. Riding up and around Bokor is a wonderful experience, and I would do it every week if I could. Not everyone’s cup of tea, but all the guys who came on our convoy thoroughly enjoyed it, crashes, scratches, bumps and bruises aside.
Suffice to say that the comradery felt at the school did not stop when we left Bakod. From teaching the younger volunteers to ride mopeds for our trips to Bokor National Park and Kep, to relaxing, lay on the top of a river boat with a cold beer while a party night unfolded on the shore, to playing beer pong in a hostel pool, they were truly unforgettable times.
AND SO, TO SUMMARISE
Just before I left the school, as with all leavers, I was asked to say a few words. In my head I had already thought of this great thank you speech I was going to give, but in the end summarised as follows – we have all seen on TV, the wonderful work done by charities and volunteers in third world and/or under-developed countries. We watch Comic Relief, Sport Aid etc., and most people satisfy themselves that donating money is them doing their part, and of course, it is much needed help. However, it’s not until you actually come and get involved at grass roots level, that you truly appreciate the work that goes on, and the difference that work makes to the community.
The word inspiration is used a lot to refer to people and things. What I saw in this country, at that school, in those kids, the dedication of Jason, Mikee and John, as well as the young team leaders who have devoted months to this project and the volunteers, young and old, be it in 2 weeks or 5 months, was, in my opinion at least, truly inspirational and will stay with me forever.
At this point, I would like to point out that I haven’t named all the volunteers I met in this Blog, as I am sure I would miss someone out and offend them, but I would like to highlight a few people who are, or have been, outstanding in terms of their commitment to Hope. Apart from the 3 Musketeers, I have already mentioned Louisa and Kirsten, but I want to mention Jobi, Skirma and Lorna for their passion and commitment to Hope. It takes a team to make it work, and they are key members of that team.
Living within these communities, getting to know the people, their joyous outlook on life, especially when you consider what they have been through, has had a profound effect on me. No longer do I yearn for the material things I used to. Yes, we live in a more developed society, and we do have more than others, but we should appreciate what we have, not take them for granted. And yes, I was made redundant earlier in the year and at the time, it felt pretty bad, but it’s not the end of the world. I still have my children, my freedom, and my “stuff”.
So, was the young lady at the end of the phone back in March right? At 47, did I love it there? Was I fine? It was tough going to begin with, we are not used to living as basically as you have to out there, but having seen the joy and love for life that the majority of the Cambodian people have, despite the atrocities that befell them, and despite the poverty, yes, she was right. I did love it, I was more than fine and when I can, I will go back to this amazing country and that amazing school. Did it matter I was old enough to be the other volunteers father or uncle? Not a bit of it…. we laughed, we lived and we all learnt together.
Since returning home, I have tried to help and support Hope Agency as much as possible, and will continue to do so whenever I can. Some things never leave you.
Long live Hope!