Am I the only person unaware that there are two airports in Bangkok and that they’re an hour’s drive apart? This meant that my connection from Yangon to Phnom Penh was very disconnected. I had 2:5 hrs to exit BKK and check in at DMK. Having learned to sharpen my elbows on a recent visit to China, I decided to be very un-British and queue jump, push and shove, bribe the cab drive with untold riches and smile madly. Nett result; I made it to the departure gate as the flight was called which meant I had time to buy an ice cream, which I’d been craving for a month, before collapsing in my seat, nerves shot to pieces and £50 poorer!
The traffic in Phnom Penh is a sight to behold. Cars jostling with tuk tuks, motor bikes and bicycles, each vying for that tiny gap as they weave their individual paths. There are almost no traffic lights but somehow the traffic keeps flowing and when it gets too congested motor bikes simply mount the pavement sending pedestrians flying like skittles.
I was in PP to meet up with 20+ other people, who like me, were volunteering with Guy’s Trust to help in the construction of a primary school in a small village about 20 minutes from Kampot. The school has a catchment of 300 children who attend in shifts; the little ones from 7-11am and the older ones from 1-5pm. One teacher has 50 children per classroom.
I have never worked on a building site – no surprise there – and don’t usually do anything more strenuous in 35 degrees (not even tennis) than sip Pimms, so my body was in for a shock. However, despite being the hottest and dirtiest I’ve been in my life, it was undoubtedly one of the most rewarding things I have ever done.
We arrived at the school to a warm welcome from children lining the path, waving flags and clapping. Dancers and musicians led the way to the veranda where we were officially welcomed by the head teacher, her staff and our site foreman who was probably thinking ‘this is going to be a nightmare’. Fresh coconut and sun hats were distributed and our tasks began.
They ranged from heavy duty digging with pick axes and spades, to rubble shifting, metal work, plumbing, concrete filling and brick laying. This is a big site and therefore, despite hours of hard labour, progress was slow, expect in two specific areas.
Firstly the playground which I worked on most of the time. We transformed an area of compacted earth to a sandy area with swings, ropes and see saws. The sheer joy on the kids faces and their infectious laughter was lovely to witness.
Secondly basins. The school didn’t have anywhere for the children to wash their hands or brush their teeth – a post-break time ritual for the little ones. With some simple plumbing and the construction of brick stacks we installed four basins, which allowed for the water to go straight into the flower beds. Ingenious.
One of the highlights of the day was lunch! A team of cooks miraculously produced the most delicious meals cooked on open fires. We had loads of fresh vegetables, meats, fish, rice, noodles and even chips. Exotic fruits were always available and also interesting ‘treats’ like coconut paste and sesame steamed in banana leaf. Sugarcane and steamed rice in coconut palms etc.
Regular breaks were essential to re-apply sunscreen, re-hydrate and cool down. They also afforded the opportunity to interact with the children. I went into all the classrooms with my penny whistle and children volunteered to come to the front to sing a nursery rhyme, followed by much cheering and clapping. A favourite was ABC which the whole class joined in with. I also taught them a few hand-banging-on-the-table games (you know, the ones where you have to down a shot if you get it wrong!), and tried to learn to count to ten in Khmer which caused much amusement.
I must mention Guy’s Trust in-country NGO partner Action Aid. The young volunteers were great fun, mucked in with all the tasks and were essential go-betweens to the builders and teachers.
Over the course of our time at the school the teachers, and the head teacher in particular became much warmer towards us whilst the children became much bolder. This meant that when it came time to leave the send off was a highly emotional occasion.
As we left, we gave every child a T-shirt (some more like dresses) and in return they gave each of us a personal, hand drawn thank you card. As we took the last walk down the path the cheering, high-fiving and laughter was deafening. Hugs all rounds and promises to come back to see the finished school, we climbed into the bus, exhausted, reflective and totally elated.
For Tony, Vicky and Alex the project was clearly an emotional roller coaster. The pride at bringing to fruition months of planning and fundraising to build this the forth school in Guy’s memory and the joy at seeing friends old and new working towards the same goal was evident to us all. And whilst there was naturally great sadness at having to leave somewhere that would be for ever linked to their son, what an amazing gift to be able to bring new opportunities to hundreds of children, their families and the wider community.
I would like to once again say a massive thank everyone who so generously sponsored me. And if you didn’t but would lie to, or even feel moved to give again, We have been asked if we could help raise money for books and other teaching materials, and for some of the older children who live some distance away, bicycles.
If you’d like to make a donation please go to: https://mydonate.bt.com/fundraisers/virginiagreenwood1
That’s it for now. My next update will be all about my adventures in Cambodia….