We are a group of ten from Aberdeen Asset Management (AAM) – Ankia, Fiona, Gareth, Isabel, Jonathan, Liz, Rocio, Sophie, Susan and myself, Sanj. We’re the latest group of volunteers to come and support SeeBeyondBorders for a couple of weeks in Cambodia, and though it seemed so far away for so long, we’ve finally arrived!
Whilst we all left home on Friday, our journey here really started a few months ago, as we each weighed up our own reasons for wanting to join such a trip. A new adventure, a new country, a chance to help if we could. Since then we’ve thrown ourselves into fundraising, planned various events and talked about the work of SeeBeyondBorders to anyone who will listen. We’ve been overwhelmed by the generosity of our colleagues, friends and family, who have tried our bake sales, cycled, bought raffle tickets, answered pub quizzes, played poker and more at all the events we’ve held. And now before we know it, we get to see where their donations are helping.
Nine of us arrived at Phnom Penh together from the UK late on Saturday night, after a 3hr stopover in Guangzhou and an almost equally long visa process on arrival. We’re all suitably confused about what mealtime it is, having lost most of Saturday and eaten what feels like 3 dinners in a row. Spirits are still high in anticipation though, not least because we’ve left an 8 degrees London for a country that’s 29 degrees at midnight(!) We’re met by Ed, who ferries us to the Golden Gate Hotel, gives us an itinerary and water, and promptly packs us off to bed with a warning not to electrocute oneself in the shower (so far so good).
Varying amounts of sleep are had by all as we fight our internal body clocks, and most of us manage to make it to breakfast at Browns the next morning with Ed. We’re happy to join our 10th member Gareth from the Singapore office, though envious of his short 1.5hr flight the previous day. He’s been up and about early and already managed to join a wedding procession. The city by day is a stark contrast to the deserted feel it had in the early hours of the night; it bustles and revs and honks with activity, as we wander down the street in the warm morning rain, passing mopeds with up to 4 people on at a time.
By the time we’ve eaten breakfast we’ve certainly learnt two things – how inexpensive the food is here and how quickly we’ve all overheated in the humidity. We’re soon on our way to pick up bikes though, and catch the ferry over to Silk Island where our cycling guides lead us on a route from concrete paths to grassy verges to squelchy mud. It soon becomes apparent who the keen cyclists are (myself not among them!) but we all keep up and cover a good distance.
It’s a great way to see the area close up, and most of the route is spent admiring the passing fields, rivers and villages, whilst trying to avoid the overexcited bulls (Susan) and small children (Liz) that often strayed into your path. We are all struck by the cheerfulness of the people we pass, spotting a group of adults singing and dancing around tables, and children shouting hello and reaching out to hi-five us the whole way.
We stop to dry off and enjoy a beautiful selection of fresh fruit – mango, jujube, dragon fruit and more – before being shown some traditional silk weaving methods. The hand looms are tricky to operate as some of us have a go and discover (though I think we could have happily left Isy who seemed to have a knack for it!). We cycle on before getting our first delicious introduction to khmer food at lunchtime, then promptly relax in the surrounding hammocks to get some respite from the saddle sores.
Another 5k back to the ferry turns out to be longer after we’re forced to detour around a wedding marquee that’s been set up and blocked off the road. This is treated as a routine occurrence, with the stoic mindset of if at first we don’t succeed, we’ll just find another way. Eventually we make it back though the bus is a pretty damp state of affairs on the drive after the heat and exertion of the day.
We’re all showered and changed in an impressive 15mins to get ourselves out on a boat in time for sunset. Ed has brought along a great haul of drinks and nibbles as we all relax on the upper deck and watch the sky turn pink over the Mekong river. It’s a perfectly relaxing way to end the day as we enjoy the warm breeze and once again marvel at the weather.
Dinner at the Khmer Surin restaurant confirms that we all love the food here, and after some drinks it’s time for bed. It’s been an enjoyable introduction to the country for us all but an early start awaits and some sights that will no doubt be tougher to deal with than today’s. It’s hard to believe we’ve only been here 24hrs!