Quintissential Cambodia

Since I arrived in Cambodia the photo ops have been just too good!

What a photogenic country with such photogenic people! I think Cambodians are born smiling!!

So now I seem to have amassed quite a collection of pictures which really don’t need too many words…here goes…

         

    

Good old fashioned fun…these wee kids were hanging out in the lake close to one of the compounds we live in out in the field.

 

We’re here in election time – and boy do these guys go for it with election rally’s. I wonder whether most of the crowd just turn up for the free t-shirt!!

 

          

     

    

 This is a beautiful but dilapidated temple called Banteay Chhmar….there really were trees growing out of the middle of the tumble-down buildings!

It was completely off the tourist trail and totally deserted – felt like we were the first people there for thousands of years.

 

These cool dudes are en route from Thailand. They take great pride in painting their trucks and overloading them beyond belief! This one is running on a tiny tractor engine!

How many men…

…does it take to pull 1 Helen out of a bog??

It appears the correct answer is about 8!!

Just back in from driver training – what an absolute riot! Since we arrived in country we’ve had drivers ferrying us around everywhere – much to our annoyance!

Then last week they gave us 2 landrovers, sent us in the general direction of the muddiest bog they could find and under the very laid back eye of our Cambodian ‘teacher’ we spent our days pelting full speed through mud baths and bogs!

Needless to say 1 landrover spent most of its day pulling the other out of the ever growing mud pits we were creating! Probably just as needless to say – I was stuck in the mud on more than one occasion.

One of the times my rescuer also managed to get his landrover completely stuck too and we ended up having to hand winch them both out! No easy feat I can tell you – those things are heavier than they look!

Such awesome fun though – the idea being to get confident driving off road, in deep mud, water and the like. You basically line yourself up with your bog, move into 4 wheel drive then pretty much just floor it in the direction of the bog and see if you can make it out the other side.

As the day progressed our mud hole just got deeper and deeper until on one last attempt by Big D there was an almighty bang as he momentarily managed to take flight then land in the hole on his front wheel axle! Whoops!

The good news is the landrovers look like landrovers should – caked in mud – very authentic! The not so good news…as the vehicles limped their way back into base the clutch on one completely gave up the ghost, we now need 2 new tow bars, a gearbox and a bloomin good carwash!

Big mama mineclearance

So here’s how it goes…first you collect all your ammo together along with your local ‘expert’!!

    

Then you dig a big mama pit and fill lots of sandbags…and I mean LOTS of sandbags

Then you layer up your stockpile – start with the little ones, finish with the biggies – and cover the lot with your sandbags

Clear the area of man and beast – don’t believe the smiles below – this local farmer had to be rather reluctantly ejected from his hammock by Strictly before we could blow up our pit!

   

Move a long LONG way away and find your seat for the ‘performance’!

(that’s big D’s feet sticking out the window as he makes himself comfortable!!)

 

Then just like in the movies, you do your 10, 9, 8, 7… countdown and BANG – press the button and blow your pit to smithereens!

 

There was an almighty bang then (if you squint a wee bit and look really closely) that big grey cloud in the distance is just as the pit explodesd to high heaven!

Not surprisingly it was all very exciting – a testosterone filled day for the boys of course – but even for us girls we had fairly wide grins plastered across our faces!

 

The big mama team and rather large hole left behind after the explosion with me in it!

 

 

 

There is a definite sense of ‘job satisfaction’ in my life at the moment!

 

So after a hard day ‘at the office’ we head for home. By the time we reached camp it was dark, we were tired and filthy and absolutely famished. We head for dinner…rice, fried beef, egg…no change there then!

 

But wait…something new on the menu…

 

 

Ah – living the dream baby, living the dream!

 

Anneka Rice is alive and kicking

Maybe you’ve seen that movie about tornado chasing? Well, swap tornado for landmines and I could make my very own Hollywood blockbuster.

There have been a lot of ‘Challenge Anneka’ moments over the last few weeks. We came out to the field to do the practical part of our ammunition blowing up training (there is of course a technical term for this training but blowing up ammo is the crux of it all!).

We have working right up close to the Thai border where the densest lines of mines were laid. In some cases having to close the locals border crossing points while we destroyed mines we they had been found.

This is us in ‘no man’s land’ closing the (still disputed!) Cambodian and Thai border! The teams often get called out by locals who actually find mines and stray ammunition left behind after the war.

Look closely at this photo – in the far left on top of the post is a landmine some kids found while they were playing close to their house – their father put it on top of the post to keep it out of their reach while he waited for us to arrive and get rid of it!

Its incredible these kids didn’t detonate it – they call these mines ‘drum mines’ and appararently the children had actually been banging on the top of the mine (which is how they are activated) when their dad saw them!!

So the idea is – you blow it up then go back to inspect its in pieces!

Yup…looks pretty ‘in pieces to me’ !

It’s amazing how much pride you can take in building up a pile of sandbags and plonking a landmine on the top! We’re testing a new technique in destroying mines here…

That was the ‘before’ and this is the ‘after’…

Now, patience cannot be said to be a virtue of us group of misfits and after spending a couple of days playing ‘lovely assistant’ to the boss while he demonstrated the rights and wrongs of it all, we were absolutely chomping at the bit…

we had the theory…we’d seen the practice in action…now come on – surely it was our turn?

There was only one slight problem…believe it or not this country is running out of ammunition left behind after the war. Now the humanitarian in me is sensibly saying that this, of course, is a good thing, the way it should be…

However the wanna-be-explosives expert in me is saying if the ammo won’t come to Mohammed, Mohammed will just well go to the ammo (well – the saying is something along those lines). So, we started to chase!

We put the word out we were on the hunt and lo and behold the very next day we were donning our metaphorical yellow jump suits, piling into the trucks and making off tyres screeching and dust flying (in our heads anyway!) for numerous brain scramblingly bumpy rides down infinite dust tracks to collect up all the unexploded mines, mortars and rockets we could lay our hands on.

After a couple of days we had enough to make a bulk demolition pit to be proud of! And so we did! It was time to start blowing some stuff up…

Monk malarky

Do you know why Buddhist monks wear differing shades of orange robe? Something to do with the monk hierarchy maybe? Something to do with which country you happen to be a monk in? No no no…its actually their version of ‘the new black’!

I asked one why he wore one shade while his monk mate wore a totally different one. They laughed and said when they become monks they get to pick their favourite!

I’ve been reliably informed deep saffron is the latest trend.

So – its been a while since I last blogged…a lot has happened but at the same time very little has happened!

To try to explain…its amazing how quickly the unusual can become mundane. You would think mine clearance involves this wildly hectic, fly by the seat of your pants existence.

Well folks…it just ain’t so. At least not when you’re a mere trainee!

Although yes, everyday I work I long old day learning lots of new things, to actually write about the intricacies of the latest metal detector to hit the scene would be just so dull even the most boring Monday morning email would seem more interesting to you.

So although a lot is happening for me out here, I won’t bore you with the details!

Just look at big D’s face below if you don’t believe me…during yet another classroom theory session!

I will say one thing though…my word this is hard going! Peaks and troughs would be a good comparison. Just when I think I’m getting the hang of it all they hit us with another monster topic to get our heads around.

Our latest ventures have been testing a new detector…which involved lots of trench digging, ‘planting’ fake mines, digging them up and replanting elsewhere! Don’t ask!

Plus I had my biggest test to date today…all on ammunition! So yesterday was a very dull study day. I felt like I was back at university – in fact no, I don’t think I even worked this hard at Uni!

You can see below photographic evidence of Kola and I started on our revision before 9am on Sunday morning. What a wild child I am!

However I now have an entire head worth of (apparently) much needed information on rockets, grenades and all sorts of other ‘war story’ paraphernalia.

The reason we are doing all this is because to destroy these things if they are found out in the field, we have to understand how they work. And boy do I understand! Or at least I think so…the results of the test are being released tomorrow!

The great bit of it all was our school trip to the war museum which we managed to stretch out for an entire afternoon.

And now we get to put it all into practice.

Back out to the field tomorrow for some seriously exploding action. So expect plenty of photos when I get back in a few weeks time.

Until then…over and out (how sad am I!!)

Pepper spray and queens

So there I was after a hard day at the office (!) quietly enjoying a glass of the ole’ chardonnay with Kola…unbeknown to us in the local gay bar!

Nice bar though so no matter…until…we heard a bit of a commotion at the bar, then it got louder, and louder and louder.

Looking over there were a couple of guys…special friends I think…having a right to-do with one another.

To this day I don’t know what about but it appeared to be something to do with which their next drink should be! Anyhow – they were fairly ‘under the influence’ to say the least and were really getting quite passionate about whether to down a tequila or a flaming sambuca.

It was all quite amusing and provided great entertainment for Kola and I.

Then all of a sudden it went quiet, very quiet – worryingly so!

Literally 2 seconds later Kola started coughing mid sentence. Took a swig of her wine and attempted to continue with what she was saying. Then she coughed again and again.

I started off by laughing at this unprovoked coughing fit only to be hit by the bug myself. Then the couple next to us started and before long the entire bar was at it!

With tears streaming down our faces, one of the waiters approached us apologizing profusely and offering glasses of water.

Once we had managed to stop coughing our guts up and actually speak again we discovered that apparently one of the guys at the bar had got so irrate at his special friend he had decided to pepper spray him!

Seriously!

Because of the ceiling fans in the bar the spray had spread slightly further afield than to just his pal and had attacked the entire bar!

Never been pepper sprayed before – and don’t plan on it again. It’s rough!

Honestly though – why they couldn’t just have had one of each shot I’ll never know but I guess pepper spraying your drinking partner is one way to settle an argument!

This is the local rubbish collection in Siem Reap! And we thought we wondered where our taxes went in the UK.

Oops!!

Unbelievably I’ve somehow managed to avoid major accident and injury since being out here!


Anyone who has been to Asia and taken a road trip on the typically potholed roads with maniac drivers will understand my surprise I’ve so far stayed out of harms way!


Oh yes, and I currently spend most of my days in and out of minefields!!


Anyhow, today my guardian angel was obviously taking a wee nap…


In one of our field locations we all live in a rather ramshakle (but oh so authentic!!) wooden house, sleeping upstairs, living downstairs. The problem with this arrangement is getting from one to the other…the problem being the stairs!


For some utterly unknown reason (Cambodians rarely need a reason to do something!) the 3rd to last stair was somehow ‘forgotten’ about during construction – not missing, not broken, just never actually built…you can see what’s coming…


A combination of trousers too long for me and desperate for the loo…before I knew it I was taking a nose dive down the stairs in full view of not only my co-workers but also the entire camp of deminers who stay directly opposite our wee house!


I am now the not-so-proud owner of a cracking bruise on my leg…must think of a suitably heroic and dramatic story to accompany it for the next time we have story telling round the dinner table.


p.s HAPPY BIRTHDAY DAD!!!


p.p.s Totally unrelated photos on this post…this is me blowing up my very first landmine for real!! Thought I’d post them here…well…just because really!


Coz i’m free…to do what I want…

1st day off today!!!

We finished work at lunchtime so all took much delight in shedding our standard issue ‘uniforms’, donning our own togs and having a normal Saturday afternoon…chilling out, reading, long lunch – that kind of thing. We then took even more delight in having a ‘normal’ Saturday night out on the town!


I think heads were a little…shall we say…’fuzzy’ the following morning!


In any event as usually happens when you are up at the crack of dawn every morning for days on end, my body clock had me awake with the cockrels and never one for a long lie in I decided to make the most of the day off.


So off I headed with Kola to play ‘tourist;’ for the day and visit Angkor Wat…seen as how we only live about 7kms away from it, it would be a crime to not make it before I leave Cambodia.

Angkor Wat is definitely impressive, it wasn’t over run with tourists either which made it all very calm and serene! however after we’d spent a ee while there we went to Angkor Thom, another temple complex behind Angkor Wat…I have to say that I most definitely preferred this place.

Playing tourist for the day we wandered round cameras slung around our necks, took rickshaws everywhere wearing our shorts and flip flops (even though it was drizzling for most of the day!)

Having a day off has made me realize how much we needed a day off. Its all too easy to just keep going and going out here – there is so much to do and see and learn…always something on a reading list to plough through or a new machine to master…hey come on…even the big G only worked 6 out of his 7 days!!

What do you mean ‘health and safety’?

I saw a very amusing sight today –  en route to a minefied we passed a new road under construction. Well, I say ‘passed’, what actually happened was we drove straight through it. Construction over here is not quite the same as we know it in the UK!


I mean, why close a road to bring in the JCB diggers when you can simply share the road with them! At one point we were literally weaving between one guy moving soil about with a huge digger and a steam roller type machine flattening the road not more than 2 metres in front of us.


A health and safety officer would have a hernia over here – not a hard hat in sight and flip flops the footwear of choice. The guys in the picture above look like they are standing a metre away from the digger – thats because they are!

Another thing making me chuckle was the Cambodian version of cats eyes (try explaining cats eyes to a non english speaking Cambodian – no, no, no not ACTUAL eyes of a cat etc etc).

Anyhow, it appears it is the sole responsibility of one plucky lass to walk down the centre of the highway clutching a bunch of pink plastic tied in little tufts, to mark the centre of the road she then ‘plants’ one of these tufts into the middle of the road as the lorries and other paraphenalia of road vehicles fly past her in both directions.

Well, the rainy season is well and truly upon us out here and as such everyone pretty much doubles their estimated journey time to anywhere! On our way back to Siem Reap we encountered first hand experience of why they do just that!

The traffic ahead of us slowed to a halt and as we pulled up behind the truck ahead of us our driver shouted out the window to ask what was going on. Apparently the road ahead had collapsed in the rain. Basically – because they don’t close the roads when they are fixing them they have to create temporary ‘diversions’ around the part of the road they are working on…all sounds like a good idea, no?

Unfortunately these temporary diversions are probably a little more ‘temporary’ than they should be. This one happened to be over a river (they were building a new bridge) so the diversion was a pile of flattened sand built up over the river.

When it rains out here it REALLY rains, the heavens had opened and had simply washed the temporary ‘sand’ bridge away downstream! So you think the gaffer would stand there and say ‘ok so its rainy season, this might just happen again if we’re not careful’…but oh no, this is Cambodia so we took out places alongside the other drivers and passengers and watched them meticulously rebuild their sand bridge over the now bulging river.

As we got on our way I couldn’t help but wonder just how long it would be before they were stopping traffic, rolling out the sand lorry and rebuilding the bridge again…and again..and again! The rainy season lasts until September…!

History, anthropology and memories!

I’m quite conscious that although I’m currently living in a country steeped in such a mass volume of history, troubles and turmoil, I’ve yet to write very much about my experiences so far, about the country and its people.

This is partly because I’ve genuinely had no time off since I’ve arrived and so haven’t even made it to Angkor Wat yet (I live 7 kms away from it!) and partly because as a rule most people know a wee bit about Cambodia’s past in one way or another – pretty much everyone has heard of the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot and the Killing Fields.

The incredible thing for me is the exposure I’m getting away from the usual tourist trail – the Cambodians I’m getting to meet through working out here, hearing their story, about their past and how their lives have been affected.

When I’m out in the field I’m working in an area which runs the length of the Cambodian-Thai border, it’s basically where the highest density of mines were laid (hence why we’re working there!). The tragic irony of the area is that the very people now involved in clearing the mines were the same people conscripted to lay them in the first place – I can’t help but think what a terrible waste of human time and effort.

Being fortunate enough to work alongside these guys, they seem comfortable talking about the past – many having lived in refugee camps just over the border for years during the fighting and some having been Khmer Rouge soldiers. They are incredible people and testament to the endurance capability of the human race!

They also have an awesome sense of humour and I’ve been regaled with many a hilarious story around the dinner table of monkeys for dinner and coconut eating chickens!

My current translator said to me today ‘when you leave Cambodia and go home you will remember this day and want to come back here’!

Picture this – I’m stood in a minefield keeping an eye on the guys demining (the picture above is a deminer hard at work – they stand like this checking the ground for 8 hours a day in 30 degree heat!) and we all stop for a 10 minute break.

Now they find the whole tall blonde female ‘barang’ thing strange at the best of times but i think they are genuinely baffled as to why I would choose to do this job! ‘Barang’ by the way is the catch all term for any white foreigner in Cambodia!

Next to me sheltering from the baking heat in the shade of the leafiest tree we could find was the minefield officer and there were 3 or 4 deminers all within earshot. I was having an interesting attempt at rather stilted conversation with the field officer – he spoke Khmer and I spoke back in english – amazingly there was actually some degree of comprehension on both sides!

In an attempt to impress and amaze (!) I started to recite my newly memorised numbers in Khmer…muy, pee, buy, boon, pram…the deminers were absolutely killing themselves laughing – whether at my terrible accent or just the fact that a barang was speaking their mother tongue I’ll never know.

In any event it broke the ice and I even got a shy ‘thank you’ in english from one of the guys later in the day!

My translator is right though – its moments like that you randomly recall at the most unexpected times one day in the distant future. I guarantee when i do it will certainly put a wee smile on my face!

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