Adventures in Phnom Penh
Once again I have procrastinated over posting this week, apologies for the radio silence. In truth, it is more a case of overcommitment to the many roles I take on in a given week. From mother and teacher, to wife, blogger, tourist and traveller, learner, keeper of my body, freelancer, volunteer, frustrated creative and alcoholic.
There is never enough time. I NEVER have enough time. A lesson for me along this journey is my insatiable need to give everything 100% and more, and honestly, its exhausting. Anything less is a let-down and leaves me wrought-up and flustered. This impacts the family, inevitably at the sharp end of my emotions and mental absence. I have felt like this for several days, and consequently have gone round in circles and achieved very little. This is a new realisation for me, and I must seek out solutions.
In the role of tourist, we realised we have been in Cambodia 3 months and had not paid a visit to the capital, time to launch a road trip to Phnom Penh. We decided against a) the bus ride at a minimum of 6 hours, b) the minivan with horrific and terrifying Tripadvisor reviews, and resorted to a well-researched taxi driver and his trusty Toyota Camry. There are two simple extremes in Cambodia, Toyota Camry or a luxury Lexus. The true extreme of life here.
The 5-hour journey to Phnom Penh is both exhausting and stimulating. Much of life exists alongside the roadsides and there is an entire world to witness and observe as we hurtle through towns and villages.
After an endless online search of places to stay (full, too expensive, wrong area, no children allowed), we eventually landed upon Villa Borann Boutique Hotel for 3 nights, Street 19, close to the Royal Palace area of the city. Use of the word “boutique” perhaps stretching the truth just a little.
True Team Legge style, we opted for an early morning departure at 5am from Battambang, and with not a single stop we were in Phnom Penh in time for breakfast and a dip in the pool by 0930. Braced with our friendly TukTuk, Chet, we set out on a rapid explore of the city sights. Having familiarised ourselves with the layout of the city, it was time to dip our toes into consumerism and sophistication, and be fully aware of our feelings and sensitivity to this exposure.
Time to Shop
Aeon Mall was our first call, only a few months old, the first shopping mall to arrive in Cambodia bringing sophisticated speciality stores to the city. We had been lured by the promise of Kids Zone. I absolutely felt a physical reaction entering the mall – people, lights, imported brands, noise and entertainment – all so incongruent to the experience we have been living these past weeks. The boys were loony within seconds at the Kids Zone, J & I was nauseous and exhausted within minutes.
Having bribed the kids out of the mall, we headed out to Sisowath Quay along the Tonle Sap River. As is inevitably on any tourist hit list for a city break in Phnom Penh we soon found ourselves people watching at the Foreign Correspondent Club, and once again making the best of cocktail happy hour (that’s a chilli vodka by the way).
Our 3 days in the capital passed quickly, and having ticked off our list the purchase of second-hand bicycle helmets, we found ourselves often lured back to the serenity of Street 240 shopping central with clothes shops, galleries, boutiques and cafes.
I had hoped for some half decent and good value clothes shopping whilst in Phnom Penh, particularly with more serious work commitments looming both as a volunteer and otherwise. Easier said than done. Aeon Mall was pricey and certainly not able to cater for this ever-expanding midriff, so we headed to the The Russian Market for Western brand factory cast-offs. A fail all round, too much for the boys to handle with the sights, smells and constant squeezes from the over-keen local folk.
Finally, a solution in the form of Tom and Alice Tailors who within 24 hours had copied a pair of my trousers into more suitable, respectable linen, and a top from the delightful Cambodian-made clothes “elsewhere’. Time to feel a woman again and an appointment at Bliss Spa (www.blissspacambodia.com) for a beauty treatment or too. Simple, but pricey pleasures.
A great find for us was Monument Books (111 Norodom Blvd), the first place in 3 months to find a fantastic selection of kids resources, and an entire floor of kids toys. Sadly for the boys, a box of Playmobil at $40 wasn’t going to happen, but they were still happy to browse. Mean mummy gave in only to a small toy car at $4. Still, a typical family in Cambodia will live on $2, so even this feels lavish. These moments are when I realise how far we have come for the boys were delighted for “something new” and continue to enjoy these 2 new cars after several days.
Cafes and Culture
There are numerous cafes and restaurants within the city centre including Costa Coffee and Browns, and we quickly found our favourites of each, The Shop for Kiwi-style coffees, and a delightful Khmer restaurant, The Sugar Palm.
For the kids, we had a surprise in store. Kid City. A purpose built heaven for kids, hell-hole for parents – play areas, iceskating, climbing walls, go karts and more. But they deserved it. To remember what they had taken for granted back in New Zealand it was time for them to go crazy. And they did.
It wasn’t all about shopping, we were also here to see the few cultural attractions in the city. Built in the mid-19th century, and home to the current monarch, the beautiful and sprawling Royal Palace provided respite to the rush of the city outside. The Silver Pagoda lies within the same complex as the Royal Palace. With its golden roofs and tropical gardens, it was a wonderful coming together of all the architectural and religious exposure we have had during our time here. The boys took pleasure in identifying the different iconography of the Buddha, and finding their favourite spots to take a photo or two.
On everyone’s list is a visit to the Tong Sleng Genocide Museum (Street 113, admission £3). J and I visited the museum separately, this was not a place to take young children. The museum is a former school that the Khmer Rouge transformed into Security Prison 21 or S-21, torturing over 17,000 people who were sent to the Killing Fields. More than a sobering experience, this is a chilling insight into the reality of the horrors of recent Cambodian history and an important part of our journey to remind ourselves of this country’s troubled journey.
Work in its traditional sense has begun in earnest as I pick up both freelance marketing projects and volunteer work for See Beyond Borders. This is a curious progression in our unplanned journey with the lighting of a “working mind” both stimulating and terrifying. Although this may well meet my desire for a) income, and b) intellectual stimulation, the reality is I am a traveller, homeschool mum, in the middle of Cambodia, and still very much in the midst of identifying a refreshed and remodelled path. Too easily this has meant a return to our old ways of being up late on the computers, as there is never enough time with just a handful of hours each afternoon.
Of course add to this our fickle internet connection and everything takes double the time you expect. Western problems in a developing world. I feel guilty for expressing my frustration, but old habits and deep-rooted ways are hard to shift.
You may wonder about playtime for the boys. Well certainly there are heaps of limitations with no easy to access parks and outside spaces, but each day passes pretty fast by the time we have completed our morning Sunflower School, and they have spent time out and about with Sam. Other moments in the day seem to be split between bicycles, kindles and imaginary games nearly always with Bashful and Spotty Dog. Games with the team of security guards seem to progress each week, with the boys now entrusted with their walkie-talkies and red-light parking sticks.
Drink O’Clock is my playtime which kicks in the moment J returns to the condo, around 515pm. The boys are always waiting for him to arrive on their bicycles and finally a bottle of Stoli Vodka ($10!) has entered the condo. Our make-shift cocktail shaker and measurers do the job perfectly, and even more so if all glass, shakers and equipment are first lightly chilled in the freezer. Sodas and mixers are purchased by J from the drinks shop on the corner (I am sure J is simply lured thinking it’s called CHEAP DRINK SHOP).
Sunflower School, in its more structured guise, is now officially in week 3, Project Architecture (Oscar’s request). Just imagine teaching introduction to architecture to a 7 and 8 year old without them looking blankly back at you in response to the notions of design, aesthetics, form, function, gravity…
Dare I admit it.. the cracks are beginning to show. I underestimated the preparation required for each project week, and for each day. Its exhausting. Particularly challenging is an inevitably fickle internet connection, lack of physical resources (books etc), lack of ability to print, and to be honest this heat which can suck motivation and energy from myself and the children at the best of times.
Educational resources. #problemwifi. To put into context, just think how generally straightforward it is to rent a movie via iTunes in the UK, NZ etc – search, click, pay, watch. Here? No such luck. Even Apple have given in to their standard T’s & C’s and refunded my last attempts to download a movie. There is simply no way we have the bandwidth available to download multimedia content. Do as the locals do, and our few days in Phnom Penh included an essential visit to Boom Boom Records who have a catalogue of movies available to upload to your hard drive or USB. We are now the proud owners of an entire series of Grand Designs, and more kids movies. This didn’t solve the educational resource issue (other than Grand Designs for Architecture Week!) which is immensely frustrating. As a lover of tech, I have come across phenomenal digital educational resources, but it’s just plain hit and miss as to whether WIFI copes at the time I want to share these with the boys.
Next up, traditional educational resources. There is nowhere in Battambang, and in fact so far only one place in Cambodia (Monument Books in Phnom Penh) that has a supply of physical kids educational resources and literature for the expat homeschool mum, neither new or second-hand. Another reminder perhaps of how few expat children over 5 probably reside in Cambodia other than the small community in Phnom Penh.
Aside from online multimedia resources, there are numerous educational booklets, PDF books and worksheets for download but used in the manner to which they were designed, require printing. We have no printer (no point in buying one) and it becomes costly, and cumbersome to download, upload and print files at the copy shop in town. Add to this the risk of computer bugs and viruses through sharing a USB stick in these places.
Sunflower School is a challenge not least just in the lack of usable resources. This is a stretch of my creative thinking ability, but we will survive for now. On a positive note, we have discovered fiction books via audible.co.uk. Thousands of fairly reasonably priced (with a subscription) quality, audiobooks. Stig of the Dump lasted 2 of the 5 hours in our taxi back from Phnom Penh, for which I am eternally grateful.
Albeit demanding, the boys have progressed well with the attention and focus. I only hope they have expanded their minds and learnt something of use in these focused hours from both J and myself. If all else fails we resort to cooking, cocktail-shaking, and getting out and about in the thick of it all.