Sopheap is the creator and director of BCDO, and isn’t strictly speaking a volunteer as I think he gets some kind of remuneration but I suppose he can’t live off thin air. All the students and Cambodian volunteers address and refer to Sopheap as ‘teacher’ which seems like something from a Dan Brown novel to us westerners but it is just how Khmer people refer to their superiors I think, as all the students now refer to me a Teacher Tim or Cher Tim; they have all got in the lazy habit of missing the tea out of teacher – especially when they’re moaning,
“Cher no!” For the first week we were at BCDO Sopheap was busy writing a proposal for more funding (we assume, he was very aloof about its subject) so he wasn’t about much, then he was ill so spent the next two weeks in Phnom Penh. Sopheap is a really nice guy who is full of interesting information; his only real problem is his lack of communication skills. I don’t mean his English; he used to work as an interpreter for the Wildlife Alliance before he became Ranger (actually catching poaches and the like), so his English was fine; it was the passive aggressive way he chose to communicate. When he wanted us to be quiet in the evening he would send another volunteer to tell us or just cut the power to the hut we were in. A few times we would all be in the communal area during the day playing cards or whatever and then at lunch he would eat silently and go straight back to his office - then a Cambodia volunteer would tell us that he isn’t happy because we hadn’t done this or that, even though that was the first we had ever heard of a particular job. On other days he actively encouraged us to have whiskey ‘parties’ and more often than not refused our help when it was offered. (Unless it was menial heavy duty manual labour, then he bit our hands off!) He also hated dogs. He would chase them around the commune with sticks, and cows for that matter.
Kenha Vorn is the biggest fashionista that Andong Tuek has ever seen, changing her outfit at least three times a day; ranging from what would be classed as work wear in the U.K, to retro blouse and trouser combos and obliviously the Cambodian favourite – matching pyjama top and bottoms. As I have already mentioned she, alongside her mother is the chef of the whole operation – stuffing us twice a day with delicious Cambodian favourites until we were ‘double full’ as she would say. On all the excursions we took during our time at BCDO Kenha was always covered from ankle to wrist, even in the inferno of a kitchen she would be layered up – not because she was coy or conservative (in the morning she wandered around the commune in a towel and shower cap) but because she wanted pale skin and couldn’t have the sun tanning her up. Sshe was mortified every time she saw us whiteys all but naked worshiping the sun. The obsession with protecting her skin from the sun became utterly hilarious when we went swimming; Kenha can’t swim so wears a life jacket, couple that with jeans and a jean jacket (which she had specifically put on to go into the water)and you get a whole lot of splashing and not a whole lot of movement. She and her brother, Cebolas were also the hustlers at cards on whiskey nights. They would drink, but not much. When we were all thoroughly squiffy (blurred cards etc) she would clear up every game of MO we played, but instead of an eruption of smug excitement which the rest of exhibited when we won (me being particularly smug) she quietly put her cards down and said,
“Mo, no problem.” I think I preferred smug to be honest.
Cebolas Vorn is Kenha’s younger brother and is Sopheap’s little disciple, many a whiskey night Cebolas would want to do something (have me cut his hair for example) and after a talk with Sopheap would have completely changed his mind; he was more often than not the volunteer that Sopheap sent to do his dirty work i.e. tell us off. Cebolas was also a demon at cards, and like his sister took full advantage of us when we were inebriated. As ‘Captain Jack Sparrot’ (I think he meant Captain Jack Sparrow) he took us to some waterfalls, was our guide around the jungle and the surrounding area. Simon nicknamed him Short Round (from Indiana Jones) because he never stopped grinning, even when he had chased a dog that had stolen food to her eventual death he was grinning; not because he was a sadist but because he was always smiling. In contrast to his sister when Cebolas won MO he would squeal ‘MOOO’ whilst waving his hand in the air, smugness a plenty.
Duong is Cebola’s, Kenha’s and Tu’s mum. She didn’t really speak to us for the first month, well in fact she didn’t speak to us at all – because she couldn’t speak English; but after the first month she did sit with us communicating through smiles and laughs mainly (she had the exact same ditzy giggle as her daughter Kenha). Duong was absolutely lovely to us the whole time we were at BCDO making all our meals with Kenha and clearing up after many a One Pound Whiskey Friday, but we could all tell from the first time we saw her that she was stern. She was the kind of Lady who didn’t run, I once saw her crossing the commune when the heavens opened and Duong’s gait remained steady, she strolled back to the kitchen not caring about a small thing like the weather – I think even if she had been struck by lightning mid step her pace would have remained unaltered. She achieved hero status during our fifth week when we caught her ten year old daughter pouring an enormous glass of our whiskey, it was for her mother- and of course we didn’t mind sharing; did she want any coke we inquired? Oh no, not Duong. She was downing that shiz straight! What a woman.
Poun was a volunteer in the loose sense of the word, he did help out- but not much. If there was menial manual labour to be done Poun was nowhere to be seen, if there was some standing around or supervising to be done, he was your man. Bun was also very shy at first, on the pretence he couldn’t speak English; he sat in the back off my class a few times and I can tell you he spoke and understood English perfectly. On our trip to the waterfall he really came out his shell, revealing the chimpanzee within. This boys laugh was ridiculous, and could only be achieved when his mouth was wide open; once he had unleashed this primate chortle he couldn’t stop it- for our final three weeks every time we saw him something was cracking him up. (Probably making fun of the weird English volunteers)
Tu Vorn is Duong’s youngest daughter and a student at the school, so refers to us as Teacher Simon, Teacher Lucy and Teacher Tim. She like her other siblings was a hustler at cards, although Tu would win because she cheated. This ten year old girl thought she could get away with anything because she had pig tails and a cute smile; it was the same in lessons; although to be fair to her all the students cheat if they can get away with it. During our stay Tu got a puppy, which she named Candy. It was her baby and at first she dragged that poor mutt everywhere; the cries of Candy could be heard daily as he got his morning wash (yes Candy was a boy). After a week or so Candy dutifully followed Tu everywhere, and if he didn’t Tu called ‘Candy’ gave a few clicks of her tongue and Candy would come running. When Sopheap took Candy to the forest in the hope he would get lost (Sopheap hated Candy)I thought Tu was going to cry, that was until she went and found her baby and hid him in the library for safe keeping.
Sockhong was a cousin of the Vorn family; he wasn’t really a volunteer but just hung around the commune from time to time. He is worth a mention in my book because he makes rice wine, and he gave us a bottle. It was following a conversation in which I commented I really wanted a glass of wine, a couple of days later and Sockhong had made my dreams come true, or so he thought. Rice wine is closer to liquor than wine and I certainly didn’t enjoy drinking it under the careful scrutiny of Cebolas – Sockhong’s cousin.
Vanak was the final volunteer, although after our first week he left under mysterious circumstances. The other Cambodian volunteers were very coy as to why he was leaving with vague references to his sick mother. He was the nicest of all the volunteers but probably the dimmest, where the other Khmers cleared up at cards Vanak was always dead last.
The reason almost the whole Vorn family volunteers at BCDO is because they own and live on the land that the school etc is on. The only member of their family who doesn’t volunteer is their father, who is a General in the Cambodian military; and apparently he is a very loud angry man or ‘crazy’ as Sopheap so eloquently put it. Thank god he was working away whilst we were there!