The second part of our journey will take us to Banlung, the hub for the 23 Ratanakiri schools and where the UWS journey began. Maxine and John have gone on to Siem Reap, so we are now five. It’s a 3 hour drive from Siem Pang to Banlung, and after an hour or so on the pitted murram the road returns to tarmac, and the scenery changes from scrub to row upon row of rubber plantations – the ecocide that has destroyed the rainforest and scarred the landscape forever. In between are cassava plants which leaches the soil so it’s all in all a no win situation for the future.
Banlung is a small oasis set amongst the hills, with hotels, guest houses and proper restaurants including a good Indian! We are thrilled to have been booked in to the Ratanak Resort, just outside town, where we have chalets set amidst the rather fading gardens, but there is a pool! And wine, and gin – until we drink the bar dry on the first night and have to switch to Campari. I share my room with a family of barking geckos – the male is enormous and gives me a real fright when he scrabbles into view early one morning.
On Sunday, a day of rest for most people, we visit two schools, Jong Ra and Ol Tuich, both of which are packed with kids waiting for us eagerly. School hasn’t officially opened yet for this term, so it is a great testament to the joy our schools bring that the children are willing to come in during the holidays. Unheard of in the west!
Jong Ra is a model school, with a vegetable garden growing cabbages, marrows, even pineapples, and has a little fish pond with some tiny cat fish. It also has a water pump which sends the water to the immaculate squat loos, rather than the water tanks having to be filled daily. Worth noting that I did not find a single dirty loo on our whole trip, even in the remotest schools or petrol stations en route. I rather wonder if the kids simply continue to use their own air-conditioned bathroom of the great outdoors and leave the loos to the adults and visitors!
Ol Tuich is a much poorer village, less uniform in evidence and some of the children seemed malnourished, despite its proximity to Banlung. Or perhaps because of it – for we are in the midst of plantation territory here – all Vietnamese, created using Vietnamese labour, with land ‘bought’ from the villagers, but in fact from the local politicians. We are to see evidence of this in Blai the next day where the villagers were dispossessed of their ancestral lands and forced to live on the edge. It is the poorest place we are to see, equal only to Kiri Vong Sa.
In Ol Tuich, Chris manages to get the children to sing a complicated round in FOUR parts of the Khmer version of Frere Jacques – quite some feat, when you think that these kids start out by only speaking their tribal language and have to learn Khmer as a lingua franca for schooling. He also tells a story about the Ugly Buffalo, a loose adaptation of the Ugly Duckling, with lots of farmyard noises being contributed from the floor. Luckily he has Pros to translate.
After class, we sit under the umbrella the devoted headmaster has built in the grounds, while the girls make posies from the flowers and give them to us. In return we rather naughtily give them a couple of surplus Cokes we had bought from the village shop – none of us would drink them! We notice throughout our trip that the children’s – and adults’ teeth – are very bad. Too much coke or sugar cane for the children, and betel for the adults as well as poor diet? Some schools have a tuck shop, selling all sorts of unhealthy snacks. It’s not surprising that junk food snacks are sadly ubiquitous and we saw many children munching on big blocks of MSG-coated instant noodles – cheap and popular. Surprisingly good when cooked for breakfast we found despite our inner aversion.
In the afternoon we take a walk round the nearby crater lake – as it is a Sunday and the end of the Water Festival, it is packed with families picnicking and saffron-robed monks, taking selfies. Several people are swimming, sheathed in large orange life jackets. We find one of the furthest swimming platforms and enjoy a cooling dip in the clean clear waters that spring from miles underground.
On our last day we have quite an adventure. Our first school is Roy, and the children are able to sing all the songs unprompted and without being led by one of the teachers.
The second stop is Tien, the third oldest school, where the children also sing for us. Gail is tasked with a retelling of the three little pigs, with Leak translating. The children are highly amused and love making the tiger noises – for it is a tiger not a wolf that blows the house down.
During break we wander round the village, which has benefitted hugely from UWS support. The houses are more affluent, and the village is full of activity: preparations for a wedding that evening, with a girl smoking the banana leaves that will be used for platters, and the others girls, including the bride, giggling shyly, chopping up cassava in front of the velour-curtained bridal chamber. Nearby the old women are hanging out, smoking pipes and chatting lazily.
Further on we find another group of women, this time cutting raw tobacco leaves into smoke-sized strips, which are then dried in the sun. At the next house yet another group of ladies are distilling rice alcohol. Everyone squats on their haunches, the younger women minding babies, the older ones smoking pipes or large cheroots. We assume most of the men are in the fields as there are few to be seen.
As we have some time in hand, Chris suggests we go and visit a school that is really off the beaten track; Sitha, the area manager, has suggested we try by 4 x 4 as the motos we were to ride have no brakes! So off we set, through the serried rows of rubber trees, then through the heart of the devastated landscape, littered with burned-out or smouldering tree stumps. Every now and then a ghost tree with bark like beaten silver stands proud, surrounded by piles of wood waiting to be cleared. It is quite heartbreaking.
We cross the first bridge without trouble and then have to ford a small river – Sitha and Pros heave a plank from the moto bridge and set it in the wheel path for the cars. We both get through with much squelching and lurching.
It is a good 6 km on a narrow track suitable only for the two-stroke farm vehicles and motos, yet somehow we make it and see Blai school as we crest a hill. School is over for the day, but there are lots of children milling around in the shade under the buildings, playing on the see saw, or the swings in the yard.
After chatting to them for a bit we head up the hill for the village, which is situated on the top of a hill, the only piece of land they were allowed to keep after the rest was stolen for rubber. It is a poor place indeed; the children are in rags, there is no shade and it is stark against the dry-baked red earth.
There is no pump here, and all the water has to be collected from the stream, where wash-day is in progress. The water seems to be fairly clean, coming out of a spring in the rocks.
It is extraordinary to think that within a few kms of Banlung, there are such pockets of poverty and malnutrition. It gives us pause for thought – what can we do to help these communities more? There must be organisations we can partner with who could help with water/sanitation and health issues. We cannot afford to feed the children in the morning, but we know that a good breakfast gives the kids a real start in life, in more ways than one. We know there are several charities who operate in the region, but it seems they jealously guard their patches and are not keen to cooperate. Nevertheless it is something we must investigate further.
On the way back, Sitha splashes quickly through the river, but our vehicle gets well and truly stuck, wheels spinning and spewing up red liquid mud, and we have to be winched out. Luckily Chris has a mechanical winch and after a few false starts and terrifying lurches, we are out. Pros has lost both flip flops in the process.
After this adventure we repair to a local beauty spot, some magnificent waterfalls, where we try some local green mango salad, crushed in a pestle and mortar before our eyes with a little black crab from a jar. Hmmm. Anyway no ill effects.
And so our trip is over: a final team meeting with the Cambodians on the spot to get their feedback, and a farewell party at Sitha’s house. Early the next morning we are spirited away back to the civilisation of Phnom Penh – a nine hour journey crammed into one of the 4 x 4s. We arrive exhausted by exhilarated by our experiences. Big thanks to Team UWS for their patience and help for the duration of our trip.
How can you not want to help these gorgeous children? Check the UWS website to donate or find out more.
I have made albums of all the best photos I took so click below if you would like to see our travels in more detail:
UWS team photos (visitors and staff)