Cambodia and the HELP project

 June 2006


After flying away from the lush greenness of Nias, and over the jungle and palm oil plantations of Sumatra and Malaysia it was a surprise to discover Cambodia was virtually treeless and brown. May and June are the hottest months. We were arriving in the last week of April but the heat had set in early.

Maggs and Ratana picked us up at the airport. Pnomh Penh is a pretty, bustling little city swarming with cars, truck and bicycle and motorbike tuktuks, all of which drift randomly and fairly dreamily from one side of the road to the other.
Turning at a major intersection is a matter of faith – swinging into the oncoming stream and waiting for someone to slow enough to let you through. Maggs handles this with aplomb and respect – a bingle with any other vehicle means a prompt on-the-spot ‘insurance’ payout, quite a healthy one for the non-Cambodian.

The pleasures of Phnom Penh were manifold, but the primary one was being family again; arriving at the house where Maggs and Ratana live was like arriving home. Maggs has worked on many missions with the UN and NGOs, she and Rick met
in East Timor and since then we’ve all been very close. Now she has adopted wonderful Ratana, a lively and engaging five year old Cambodian orphan and is adapting to becoming an instant mother as well as living and working in PP, where she’ll stay for at least a couple of years. Adding to that pleasure, and the luxuries of proper beds, hot showers, air con and a garden were the
sybaritic delights of a real city; a wildly luxurious massage at Bliss, whiling away an hour or two and a few G&T’s on the cushion strewn cane platform in the jungle garden at Elsewhere, salads, mangoes and strawberries, icecream, yoghurt and decent cheeses, wine and champagne,cappuccino and trawling the Russian Markets for clothes I wasn’t too big for.
All of which are not available on Nias.

Rick and I took a flight to Siem Reap and spent a couple of days tuktuk touring. The main temples, Angkor Wat and the Bayon are intricate, magnificent and thronged with tourists, although they are huge enough to bypass the beaten tour trails and
times. Somehow the smaller temples give a greater sense of the past, less pomp and glory more a glimpse at how religion fitted into the lives of everyday folk. The most enjoyable complex for us (partly because it was shady, and a relief from the hot grey stones of the others) was Ta Prohm, slowly subsuming to the jungle, its arches and pediments being patiently wrenched apart by the
tree roots that pour over the walls like lava, insinuating into crack and crevice.

While at Siem Reap we also tuktuked out to the floating villages of Tonle Sap, a 16km trip from town, the last half jolting over a dirt road snaking along a levee linedwith wooden shacks which housed the poorest of the poor, eight or ten people
sleeping through the midday heat in a platform only a few metres square. They were liberally dusted by the passing traffic, the road pocked with craters so deep we sometimes wondered if the motorbike would be able to pull us out of them. Finally reaching water we clambered into a shallow beamed diesel-powered wooden boat which churned through the mud of a narrow channel, occasionally getting stuck, and out to the muddy waters of the lake, still occasionally
getting stuck. We chugged around the vast flotilla of floating houses, most buoyed up on rafts of bamboo, and including floating gardens, chicken coops, mechanic workshops, churches, pigpens, tiny kids paddling plastic bowl coracles … there were some friendly waves but generally the beleaguered inhabitants were indifferent to the constant invasion of goggling tourists.

Our other Cambodian water experience was an afternoon on a fishing boat on the Tonle Sap river drifting down to the confluence with the Mekong. Just us Maggs, Ratana and a few beers and the sun setting over the temples of Phnom Penh.

Cambodia was seductive enough for us to contemplate looking for work there next year.




I'm working on a housing assessment project run by HELP, a German NGO, accessing villages about three hours away from Gunungsitoli, in the central mountains. The aim is to interview every household about the earthquake damage to their homes (fourteen months ago now, they've been waiting a while), their livelihoods, and to map, locate with GPS and photograph the houses. We are meant to do 1400 houses in four weeks - with four teams this works out at about 20 minutes per house. There is a lot of walking, some climbing (many villages up very steep hills), and as we don't always have four teams because people get sick or have meetings, the time frame is optimistic. Each international needs a translator, and while some of our translators are good enough to go on their own, we don't have enough equipment to maximise this.

The week starts at 5 or 6am with a manic drive for several hours dodging potholes chooks, pigs, motorbikes loaded with up to five people, and trucks. The roads are narrow and our drivers seem compelled to overtake everything. Because of the distances we stay most nights in the villages - at the moment we are renting two rooms in a pleasant house, with up to six sleeping on the concrete floor (kapok mattresses) in each room (strict gender division). After no lunch the first day in the field, and biscuits for dinner I suggested that the young woman of the house might make us packets of boiled rice for lunch. The next day lunch arrived via our driver, hot rice wrapped in oiled brown paper and secured with a pink rubber band, with a spoonful of tinned fish each. Over the weeks dinners have also improved and once we found a place in the village with a fridge things looked up – we can finish the day with a chilled beer unless there has been a power cut, though I've discovered that if you are tired and thirsty enough warm beer is ambrosia (never thought I'd see the day).
The first field excursion was a doozy, we didn't start until afternoon, and as soon as we got out of the car it started raining. Heavily. We put on our bright yellow HELP macs and set off into the jungle like a file of giant ducklings, six of us following the old man who had agreed to guide us. It rained in torrents for the best part of the next five hours. We were lead on mud paths the width of one shoe, over mountains and through rivers, sliding down hillsides, grasping at whatever we could to stop going further down the slope. In five hours our three teams interviewed a total of six families and documented two ruined and deserted buildings that belonged to the old man's son - the wife and her two babies had been killed in the collapse. But by the time we had worked out the old bastard had shown us only the houses of his relatives, including two outside the survey area (to the indignation of another villager) and had lied through his teeth about taking us back on a short cut sympathy was waning. Exhausted, footsore, (the velcro on my sandals full of mud and breaking open on every step so I was sliding out of them), the last river we had to cross thigh deep and rising rapidly, we just made it back to the main road by dark. 

Snakes seemed the worry for most of the team I reasoned that no-self respecting snake was going to venture out in that rain and mud. I was more concerned that we had no communications, neither radios or sat phone - so if one of us slid over a cliff or if we'd got stuck in the jungle in the dark, there was no way of letting anyone know.

Since that day we've kept to the villages and main hill tracks, usually very steep paths of rough rock. It rains most days and gets very hot, so sitting in the shade of a veranda overhang or inside a broken concrete/mud floored house, is pleasant.
The people are gentle, patient and courteous. Most of the houses are damaged, probably half were destroyed. There are many health problems including TB and little access to medicos.

It was suggested at the beginning of the project that we should politely decline offers of tea or coffee so we could keep up the work quota. Hah! The villagers are far too poor for such luxuries - in three weeks we've been offered one drink - a lovely man
climbed his tree and cut coconuts open for us. I've worried since that that could mean one meal less for him and his elderly father. Betel nut is the one indulgence, most people live simply on rice. It is hard for us to eat our own lunches with a small crowd watching, when we have three times the food they’d eat in a day. It is a humbling experience to sit with a family with no visible means of support, clothes in rags, a house roughly rebuild of the broken pieces of their previous home, and to listen to their story. They hope HELP will bring some form of assistance but with the project depending on a funding deal still not signed off, there are no guarantees.




Now that the timber ships are arriving every three weeks or so the pressure is off Rick, Vinod and the UNHCR timber yard team to provide timber to the NGOs, but back on to empty the yard between shiploads. More than 6000 cubic metres of the expected 20000 has been landed and we see timber stacks all over the island. Much of it is being offloaded from the landing craft directly onto the beaches using a couple of Manitou forklifts, one on the beach one on board the LCT. The timber yard team is fantastic and works like clockwork.

We didn’t feel the Java earthquake, Yogjakarta is quite a long way from here, but there have been a couple of reasonable tremors locally. No damage reported, a few more small cracks in a couple of roads. We all clambered out of bed at 11 one night when
one tremor kept going for maybe a minute, but despite measuring 6.8 it was pretty gentle. As we were heading back inside I saw a glow on the step to our room. A firefly, the first I’ve seen here. But for the earthquake I would have missed it.

We return to Australia briefly in early July for a busy week of appointments, seeing family and waving Pippa off to Europe. Then it is back to Nias until the end of September to complete the mission.