Rory goes to Asia: Cambodia

Part 2: Cambodia – “Home to the friendliest of people, lush green jungle and mystical temples.”

The second half of my trip was scheduled for 4 days or so in Cambodia but as Covid is still affecting the airlines, and specifically the volume of their flights and connections getting back to normal, this meant lots of sitting around between flights and having to fly in and out of Phnom Penh instead of Siem Reap. It was sad to see the once busy airport in Kuala Lumpur with all its closed shops and lines of aircraft parked up in long term storage. But there were people travelling and the buzz of many people off on their travels was certainly on the up.

Entry into Cambodia was pretty easy and surprisingly the flight was full into Phnom Penh. As I stepped out of the airport the heat hit me, as well as the noise and hustle and bustle. I opted for the slightly more refined mode of transport of a taxi into the city as opposed to the sensory overload of a tuk tuk – there would be plenty of time for that later.

Bus Journey Phnom Penh to Siem Reap

I ended up on a bus from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap the following day – the 30+ seat bus had just 6 people on whereas pre-Covid it would always be packed. I always enjoy this journey which used to take 8+ hrs but now with improved roads (due to Korean and Chinese investment) is down to 6 hrs. There is loads to see as you race across the flat countryside, paddy fields everywhere, water and flooding (the rains had arrived early this year thanks to climate change), and people coming from all angles on/in all sorts of modes of transport. After 3 hrs I jumped off to meet Bunlay, our Country Manager in Cambodia, in the bustling town of Kampong Thom. As usual, our first act was to catch up over a plate of food. We then drove north to our Camp in Beng Pae.

Camp in Beng Pae

A lot had changed along the dirt road into camp. It used to have just a few houses dotted along it but now they were more frequent and even included the odd shop. When I say shop, I mean a load of produce piled up underneath a house for purchase as and when required. The camp was struggling with its grass roofs the same as Tinangol. There were a team of the staff up high on the roof replacing the grass pieces and wooden frame with a steel frame and zinc sheeting. There were some slightly dodgy looking work practises going on (its Cambodia, that’s normal!!) and as ever I was greeted with huge smiles. We walked around the camp, talking through some of the issues that were due to be fixed – it was mainly dilapidated grass roofs and how to keep the encroaching termites at bay. As with Tinangol the camp looked a bit sad and the amount of work before school teams arrive seemed way too much. But as ever I was reassured by the experienced voice of the project staff – no problem Boss, it will be ready. (We are pleased so say it is ready and currently being enjoyed by UK school teams).

Camp Beng Mealea

The following morning we visited Camp Beng Mealea which lies just 90 mins drive from Siem Reap. Things are changing in the surrounding area here too – there is a plan to build and re-locate the main international airport out of Siem Reap to this area in the coming years.

The camp at Beng Mealea was our first in Cambodia and again when it was built back in 2010 it was in a bare open patch of ground. We had paid an international mine clearance team to do a full detailed clearance of the area as a precaution and therefore it was bare (Can you believe it cost us a cow to get it done). But now it’s a jungle wilderness opening onto the neighbouring paddy fields. This is mainly down to Han, our Camp Manager who definitely has green fingers. Even the walk along the track, around the massive pagoda, past local houses and into the camp was green and lush. Yes, there was the usual plastic waste lying around which is a very common problem in Cambodia – recycling is absolutely at the bottom of people’s priorities and unfortunately what used to naturally degrade after use has now become plastic as more and more people buy essentials from the local shops. It’s an issue we ask visiting teams to consider as part of being responsible travellers on their trip.

Han was smiling from ear to ear as ever – he rarely if ever is seen without his huge smile across his face.  We had a look at the English classrooms and discussed the plans to further develop them.  The camp was generally in a pretty good state with a few walls needing replacement in the longhouses and the odd patch in the roof.  Some of the local wildlife had obviously moved in as we saw a snake warming itself on the back roof.

Bunlay and Han were very proud of their newly designed and fabricated toilets to replace some of the aging ones – I was urged to give them a test run and can attest to them being very solid and strong.  We lunched, chatted, laughed, talked through the refurbishments and project plans for the forthcoming UK team season, and we ate durian.  Life doesn’t get much better than that in my opinion.

Admiration for the ongoing dedication of the Camps family

 And as quickly as I had arrived, it was time to dash to catch another public bus and get myself back down to Phnom Penh for more flights and winding my way home.  I came to Asia excited but also deflated after an incredibly hard few years.  There were ups and downs during the trip but nothing unexpected.  However, I arrived back home buoyed by our incredible staff in both Borneo and Cambodia.

Their warmth, generosity, and ability to not dwell on the past and any difficulties was just what the doctor ordered.  I am an extremely lucky person to spend time with them all, no matter what they do for Camps, their dedication and energy is incredible. 

We can’t wait for those travelling to Cambodia to experience first-hand the local community’s generosity and friendly nature. If you would like to see what our current student travellers are up to then visit our twitter page.

You may also be interested in