‘Happy Merry Christmas Day’, Siem Riep, Cambodia – 25th December 2010

Its ChriiiiiiisssssssssssssstttttttmaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaasssssssssCHOPS

People hover and scoot around with saline drips in their arms, bags of solution held high.  All over Cambodia, on the back of scooters wearing bandages on body parts. Pyjamas on, hanging from car windows, sitting in-front of you in a minibus, you will see them.  People back on there feet and heading home.  They seem to be all over the place this Christmas morn.
I’m awake early, due to the noise of locals playing their 6am volleyball match on an artificial beach/ piles of construction sand.  The small light blue concrete mosque next door calls all to prayer from a crumbling minaret.  Islam taking off.  The community surrounding the sewage works begins to stir.  No Father Christmas has not visited my little hut room on a roof.  No piles of socks and over priced confectionary for me this year.  Thank hey-zeus.  He doesn’t seem to visit Cambodia.  But everybody in the streets and from passing tuk-tuks (small wobbly carts dragged by 125cc mopeds) shout ‘Happy Merry Christmas!’ with glee.  Most of them don’t know about Jesus, but then again, not many people in the West know of him when he said ‘The kingdom of the spirit resembles a cottonwood seed’.
Christmas day in England, officially the least religious day in the calendar year.  Abstinence and discipline irrelevant when the mince pies and brandy sauce are produced.  A celebration of consumerism and excess.  Romantic nostalgia the general sentiment, ‘do you remember the good old days………….’ when Slade and Noddy’s chops were Top of the Pops.  The modern day Xmas an endurance test, as we eat and drink ourselves into a mid-afternoon stupor to the plastic sounds of plastic X-people, in the midst of a feeding frenzy.  Waking with red eyes to the Queen making a completely irrelevant speech from her palace in the sky.  Good to be Cambodian this Christmas time.
My Christmas day was a little different from the rest.  It began in a pink mosquito net cocoon, then gentle slow yoga moves and some funky spirulina paste.  With vigor I kicked their deflated volleyball back and get on an old bike, Dutch in style and rusty by nature.  Drifting (more grinding really) down to the old market, just getting warmed up.  Fruit being stacked in pyramids, splashes of vivid colours and textures in the melee, fresh crusty baguettes arrive in bamboo baskets on heads (what aroma!), dead pigs wobble on the back of mopeds, slit necked and ready for the massive machete chop.  All is steaming as the cavernous noodle soup pots take off over wood braziers.  I sit at the low, crowded counter and order a vegetable yellow noodle soup, surrounded by piles of green herbs and intense fish sauce fragrance.  What arrives is full of random organ chunks, Vietnamese style, a real treat for most here and served with a proud smile.  What can be done?  I opt for getting stuck into it with artificial gusto.  Not bad at all considering.  Its piquant and I leave breakfast tearing, nose running, praying for a yoghurt.  Ingesting the intergalactic laxative for sure.  Ducking past the piles of deep fried tarantulas (surely a tourist thing), I buy a bag of Thai mangosteens and get back on the junkyard bike.
Past a glass and white faux marble mini mall I go, a small reminder of changing times here.  Ominous developments.  Outside there is a glittering Christmas tree, a snowman and some large speakers pump out ‘Do they know its Christmas’ (original Liveaid version with Bono and Midge et al) full blast, groups of locals and Japanese tourists bop around to the festive tune.  We are close to the World Food Programme Office.  I’m sure they are not thinking of good old Bob Geldof and his table thumping antics of the ’80’s.  Magnificent though they were.
Lets see what today will bring, relieved of the need for planning, I find life takes me where it likes and keeps things interesting.  Real experience surrounds and manifests in beautiful ways.  The universe is the master.  Suddenly I’m buying a slab of sweet, sweet red papaya and the adventure continues.

I pass a large childrens hospital on my right, Kantha Bopha (a must look for inspiration – http://www.beat-richner.ch/) and stop in to give 300mg of crimson blood from my right arm.  For this act I recieve one t-shirt, a can of sprite, one box of crackers and a free blood test for Hepatitis A, B, Cholera, AIDS, and god knows what else.  Either way, good to know what you’ve got.  I also notice a Cello Concert will take place at 7:15pm, which I will attend.  This chap Beat Richner is a one man army for good, for child health, affecting and saving thousands of kids daily and changing the way Cambodians view institutions and the future.  No corruption here, only Western standards of drugs and equipment, bought from the evil pharmaceutical giants for top dollar for some of the worlds poorest folk.  Have a look.   Its a truly amazing human tale.  He is Superman.
Having chatted with the genial nurse, she mentioned the impact on the ‘financial crisis’ in Cambodia.  Donors of blood had fallen by half last year, one of the tiny ripples caused by those soulless bankers in the City of London.  Fewer and fewer tourists.  Kids here cannot be operated on due to lack of adequate blood stocks.
I ride through a park, under giant acacia trees, I hear the chattering of a colony of fruit bats and stop to take pictures.  Flying foxes we called them in school.  I get guana’d on from ahigh in the process.  Excellent fertilizer that must be harnessed soon.  I pay my respects to the giant golden buddha on the lawn, with a few smouldering incense sticks, then a freshly squeezed sugar can juice mixed with fresh orange from a smiley farmer.  Zing.
Back to the hut room for a shower.  Its setting me back $2 per day and the water tastes like rust.  Still the beer at the bar is .50c.  I have considered brushing my teeth with beer.
Meet up with Raphael, a proud French Basque man, with Algerian blood and a potential modern day Robin Hood.  A traveller since the 60’s, this man has led incredible days and nights.  He takes from the French government, in severance pay, and gives to the Cambodians in books, wisdom, mopeds, laptops, scholarships etcetcetcetc.  The rest of the hotel is mainly full of tourist, skimmers, who see the surface of the culture, but don’t seem to breakdown that all important first door.  They don’t speak the to the locals.  Give them the time of day.  Think they are all hanging for their every Euro note, when really they just love a chat.  I have observed this.  Interesting to see our different perceptions and actions when we are in it, highlighted more when we move around.
Raphael and I cycle off into the red dust of the baking highway.  Khromer scarves wrapped around our faces like vigilantes.  That dust is a killer.  Heading to a village built on the side of a road, Taksin Khonghpong and the Khmer for Khmer N.G.O. (contact Sokha – sokha_2005chamrean@yahoo.com, if you are thinking going to donate money, this is an amazing cause and will really affect the lives of many children.  They will soon have a website) started by four local students.  Making a difference where it is really needed, starting with the poorest street children and giving them a safe centre of hope, food and education.
In three months, with virtually no funding, they have built two latrines (the first for over 300 families), two school houses, two clean water pumps, a handi-craft centre for HIV positive women and started an organic vegetable patch with good looking pumpkins.  Not bad going!  They also teach, between the four of them, 150 schoolkids twice a day for 7 hours and continue full time education AND act as tour guides around Angkhor Wat to raise funds and feed all the kids (total food cost for a month $50).  They are also superhumans, shy and humble with it.  There seem to be a few of these around here.  The village is scruffy, strunned with piles of plastic and filth.  Through an abject lack of education and opportunities for the last couple of generations, basic house keeping and awareness of cleanliness has been lost and with it even the slightest sense of better times to come.  Hope.  When you see the kids and the mothers (I won’t mention the fathers, generally a waste of space) you have to try to do something about this and that is exactly what Sokha and the gang have done.  They have no land to grow their own crops (farm ‘borrowed’ from a local landowner), their houses are built on government land that can be taken away at any time.  They are some of the lost people, in a land of abject poverty.  Average daily wage in Cambodia, less than .50 cents.  I’m going back there for a while in February, so let me know if this pushes your buttons and you fancy giving these real hero types some dollars.  50 pounds will feed the kids for a month.

The Santeheap Guys and Gals

We then bike down rutted country lanes and float past verdant rice paddies, hoping my wheels won’t fall off amongst these rocks.  Arriving at Santeheap (www.santepheap.org) a school and centre for poor children from villages surrounding Siem Riep.  Ran by an American, David (Seattle) we are greeted by over 30 ecstatic kids and teenagers.  Exuding happiness, big smiles and hugs all around, which is affecting in the finest ways.  These kids live here and attend the best private school in Siem Riep, all excelling after slow starts and all thanks to David, his vision and fund raising prowess.  We watch them perform traditional dances, the boys play Khymer instruments and we distribute some vivid purple cakes that we bought, to a mixed response.  David is not only helping them learn about there Khymer heritage (not taught in local schools) but has also built a computer lab and organises regular Western volunteers who teach English and other subjects, meaning these kids all speak excellent English and are as bright as buttons.  I get stuck into the kitchen, a corrugated shack on the shores of a pond, clogged with bright pink lotus flowers.  I love to cook on the ground with wood, that’s real flavour, energy flowing up.  We clean our nails with fresh lime, play and generally joke and laugh.  I try the ‘Khong’ instrument, a semi-circle of bell/cymbals that resonate a pleasing timbre.  Backed by a 6 year old on a large bass drum.  The food smells great, with fried peanuts and local pond veg, but we have a date with the Cello man and the sky is becoming bruised.

Beat Richner and Cello

Beat Richner puts on one hell of a show.  One man with his Cello in a minimalist auditorium that seats 100’s.  He built this, raised the money and desigined it, in a chaotic landscape of violence and corruption.  He has also built 7 hospitals all over Cambodia.  He speaks with the conviction of a man who knows not defeat or compromise.  A man who lives his dream and will die for it to.  A rare breed in any age.  To hear him play Bach is a delight in itself. But to see the passion he posseses,  at close quarters, is enough to inspire anybody to do something about anything.  Get off our hands and turn hot air into something tangible.  Make this world better for us all, little by little or in Beats case, using giant strides and vast strokes.
Christmas dinner consists of salty fried vegetable rice and a cold Angkhor beer, by the main road, under ripped blue tarpaulin.  A local joint gathered around a hanging lightbulb.  For dessert we have a local favourite, the only option, consisting of strange chewy tapioca balls, candied pumpkin and black beans, condensed milk and shaved ice.  I will eat most things, but I would prefer a warm apple pie and custard at this stage of the day.  Raphael and I sit and talk of many things, dust clogging our nostrils but not our mouths.  We talk with conviction in genuine tones that only a special sort can bring out of you.  We feel empowered as humans to get out there and change things.  I hope it lasts.

The late evening is spent on polished teak benches, under a palm roof with guitars.  Raphael is a virtuoso classical finger picker and I crudely strum along on my LeLe.  We are surrounded by the local dudes, an awesome bunch.  Tuk tuk drivers and hotel workers, who dance and whoop as we put our own unique style to Latin classics.  Cambodians party from the heart and sing to anything, drink freely (if the days money allows) and live for tonight.  At 4 am we fade, the day is over.  I have callouses on my fringers, the fridge has ran dry and the sky is getting brighter.
Really Cambodia is full of Bob Geldof’s and the like and the better (certainly without the honed ego, I encountered him a number of times in Knightsbridge).  People who are willing to put themselves on the line to help the Cambodian people.  I like these people, I like the way they do things, their rational, earnest approach to some huge social problems and obstacles.  How do you help to rebuild a country, a culture?  The government stand in the way and rich Cambodians don’t care for their own people, so they will.  Something righteous about their complete embrace of another culture and countries issues.  From what I can see, there are steps being made for a better future and foreign help is a key part of this.  All this for one glowing reason, Cambodians are brilliant and deserve the best!  They shine.  Amazing sorts,  they make me laugh alot.  I will return here in February to see what I can offer.  I did not think of baby Jesus or brandy sauce once today, but I got a dose of the Christmas spirit somewhere.

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