‘A long time ago in Kiri Vongsa’ sings Bunthynn, the United World Schools Education Officer as we set off from Banlung – to the tune of the Bethlehem carol. A jolly start to an adventure! If you want to see a map of our journey click here for a link to Ross’s website.
We arrived the previous night after a 7 hour drive from Siem Reap. The roads are all tarmac now, and quiet as it is Sunday, save the constant motos, tuk tuks and ‘metal buffalos’ that lurch out from side roads and chug along at about 5mph. I am amazed we don’t see dead animals littering the roadside as dogs dash across, herds of cows and water buffalos meander along, ducklings and chickens play dare at every occasion.
After an early breakfast we stop off at the market for provisions – a bush knife, spades, a mat, fruit (the need for the former becomes clear later).
The road is lined with large rubber plantations, cashews and mangoes, Cambodian-owned but on land that was formerly agricultural. After 40 minutes or so we arrive at the ferry in Veong Sai that takes us over the Seh Sai river. We are lucky it is there, so we charge on. We are the only vehicle, most are foot and moto passengers; a little girl studiously studies the sticker on her apple rather than eating it.
As soon as we cross the road deteriorates and suddenly we are in deepest rural Cambodia, in the rice fields where the families decamp for 4-5 months per year to plant and harvest rice. As the monsoon flooding has only just receded the roads are deeply rutted and narrow – in some parts the farmers have moved new fences right over the road making it extremely hard to navigate a path. So we gingerly remove several gate posts to enable us to pass!
Sometimes its hard to know which ‘road’ to take – they are rarely used by cars only motos, and suddenly we are stuck in the mud! No amount of revving and 4WD activity will do – it’s winch time! Our skilful driver Panyang and Bunthynn are well used to this, sling their hook round a tree and slowly we emerge! The next hazard is a fallen down tree – and this is where the knife comes in as Bunthynn sets to hacking a way through with vigour! Next there’s a huge thud and we have lost a mudguard! Then they leap out to hammer the nails back into a wooden bridge! All in great good humour as we are regaled with stories of Bunthynn’s childhood ‘when I used to ride a buffalo’ and descriptions of treating broken legs with a leech compress.
After several hours, and passing two UWS schools en route, we arrive at Sopsith School, where we leave the car. We hoist our rucksacks and gifts and walk down to the river where we board a long-tailed canoe to take us the final few kms as there is no road. Last time I came the whole way by canoe but the water is too low, as we discover when we have to get out while the boat is hauled over some rapids; Panyang and Bunthynn get very wet in the waist high water, slipping and sliding over the rocks while pulling upstream against a strong current.
Finally we arrive, a good five hours later. We jump on top of a metal buffalo with our luggage and bump our way towards the school. As we arrive we see all the children lined up, with parents and teachers, the village policeman, the headman, all waiting for us. As we decamp they begin to clap and bow their heads in the traditional Khmer greeting. I feel a bit like the Queen of Sheba making her triumphal entry!
‘Welcome to Kiri Vongsa’ yell the children in a rising crescendo when we enter the school. The headman and the principal make speeches, barely audible above the excited chatter. This really is an occasion for these children, two strange bedraggled hot and sweaty white people arriving in their village! I make a speech in return and later present our gifts – footballs, volley balls, smaller balls, stickers, paper chains and flash cards. In return I am given a local woven backpack or kapha, which the women use to carry things to and from the fields.
I look around the crowd: the children are all different after four years, but still so engaging in their enthusiasm; some of the ladies are the same, now with new babies (a family has between 5 and 9 children on average); snotty noses abound along with hacking coughs – signs of TB – and many children look undernourished. One woman begs paracetamol for her baby which looks very under the weather. I give it her with warnings on dosage and later worry whether she will have listened.
Finally it’s time for the kids to go home for lunch – and for us too! The recently arrived UWS team has rustled up some pumpkin and chicken stew, which we eke out with our rice from the hotel; the chief joins us and eats with gusto. Then a quick 40 winks in the hammock before school starts again.
There are 6 grades in the school, sharing the four classrooms, library and an overflow area underneath, among the stilts. It’s the first day of term and new books and pencils are being doled out, along with some breadsticks as a gift (no sweets).
I notice a lot of raggedy urchins amongst the pupils – some of whom have uniform, some not as they are too poor and we don’t make it compulsory. These are siblings (you can tell as they are constantly demanding attention from their older brothers and sisters) and the teachers’ kids.
I nickname them ‘the pests’ as they are both distracting – although the older kids show them nothing but tolerance and kindness – and naughty: one of my new footballs is soon being kicked around the classroom by the little tykes while the grades 1 & 2 are trying to do arithmetic! We encourage the littles ones as it gets the children into a learning environment young and allows their elder siblings to attend school. In some schools we have formal kindergartens but not here. But that’s the lovely thing about Cambodians – they are a peaceful gentle people despite their history and I never saw a squabble among the children over anything.
We wander round this organised chaos, listening to children reading, doing sums, answering questions to applause if they get it right. All are engaged despite the great distraction we provide.
Then Bunthynn leads some organised games and singing: Heads, shoulders, knees & toes with actions, a Khmer song to the tune of Frere Jacques about going to school. It’s not surprising they love school so much that the next morning they turn up at 6.20 for 7 am start, which is a bit of PE in the yard, after raising the flag and singing the national anthem, to get them going; many will not have had breakfast so it’s important at to wake them up. We both feel very proud to have made all this possible.
After school the kids are keen to try out the new footballs. Hard to tell who is on which side in the melee but they play with vigour, kit ranging from two flips flops and raggedy clothes, to one trainer and one flip flop, some old football shirts, with one child who has brand spanking new trainers, knee-high socks and a new strip. I am told that this disparity in wealth arises from the difference in farming methods.
Kiri Vongsa has 202 families of whom 50% are slash and burn agriculturalists, while the others have fields closer to home and can plant more rice with mechanised support. The families who have to travel miles will keep those fields going for 3-4 years with diminishing returns and probably only grow just enough to feed their families, while the ‘richer’ families can produce more than enough and sell the surplus.
You can tell from the houses in the village which families are which. And by the football kit. It does mean that for 5 months of the year the children cannot be spared for school and this creates real problems as it’s hard to remember what you learned if you have such a long break. On our walk round the village we bumped into four girls who had been in school the previous day, but now had to return to the fields for a week or so to bring in the final harvest. And one girl who simply couldn’t be spared so hadn’t been able to attend school at all…
Another evening ritual is the bath. I am told I am expected to join the kids in the water – and so I do, fully clothed!
In the evening its meals on wheels as the UWS team deliver mountains of rice, several stews and garlic omelettes by moto. Everyone digs in, adding parsimonious amounts of the cooked food to the rice. For dessert Bunthynn has brought some green oranges which he peels, adds salt into the top and then massages to produce a refreshing juice. Visitors arrive – some delightful girls in Sunday best, ranging in age from 13 to 17, who all want individual photos with me, which Bunthynn will print out and give them on the next visit, and some boys (still in best football kit). We play spin the bottle with the forfeits being animal noises; the girls are very shy but soon we are all snorting, squeaking and honking away.
The next visitors are some local men who bring in a jar full of rice wine. You simply add water, and then drink though a bamboo straw. It has already been fermenting for 8-10 days. We try some but it is very yeasty, though not unpleasant. The jar disappears with the men when we announce we would like to sleep!
With great aplomb Bunthynn has brought in a wooden post and attached it to the roof and assembled our hammocks for the night in the classroom. The rain is beating down on the tin roof, the barking gecko is in full voice, and it is really cold – we have not brought proper sleeping bags only liners and no fleeces. I find it hard to sleep and am awake at 3.45 am – the only way to beat the chill is to read my book until sun up and time to visit the spotless loo – the night before it was literally swimming with frogs and full of bugs so I needed to hold out for as long as possible!
In the morning Bunthynn proudly produces a toaster (which requires a special generator) but it doesn’t work! Instead we have jam and omelette sandwiches with the teachers – who share it with their children who in turn share with their friends. Some teachers have never seen jam…
Then it’s time to leave the village for the long journey back. Again the pupils and villagers line up and bid us a fond farewell, more bowing and clapping. It has been an uplifting stay and we feel humbled that the gift of a school can make such a difference to people’s lives.
The testament to this is meeting a former Kiri Vongsa pupil at Okapin school where he is now a teacher. I remembered him from my last visit. We really are making a difference in these far flung minority communities.
We arrive back in Banlung – this time the tune is ‘When the Saints go marching in’ – after lunch at Vieng Sai while we wait for the ferry. It seems much shorter this time as we have already done the hard work with the road and remember the better way! We pay a visit to the volcanic lake for a swim and a walk. A team meeting in the evening with some feedback and chat with the other donors who have all had equally stimulating and inspiring visits.
Early the next morning the others go for one last round of visits and we set off for Siem Reap – a much quicker journey (so quick we got done for speeding) with our driver Rut, and translator Sithun, who has been with UWS since 2008. The roads are quiet, although it is harvest time and we are slowed down by the metal buffalos loaded with bags of rice going to the mill, and wary of the young schoolchildren wobbling around on bikes and motos as they go home for lunch (shocked by 9 year-olds driving motos!). Back at the Lynnaya hotel we are thrilled to be ushered into a small suite with an outdoor area and a super comfy bed after the hammock and the rock hard mattress of the Banlung Boutique hotel. A pleasant night, writing, and out to eat, before crashing out for the next leg to Singapore – and then the Solomon Islands via Brisbane.
A few shots from the village and my new friends, young and old. The two girls couldn’t bear to see us go! Love the old lady and her cat…