Japan: Oishi!

The tick and fizzle of battered prawns gently frying set my stomach rumbling. Squat shop fronts lined narrow Sunamachi in Tokyo’s Ginza district. Scarlet lanterns and golden streamers hung from every lamp post. The mushroom parade of umbrellas ruffled in hurried apology as lone cyclists slowly picked their way through the crowd. Bicycle bells are too rude for Tokyo so every front wheel that gently noses into the back of your leg is a surprise.

“This is the Tempura King,” our guide, Miyu, said.

A stocky man in a white chef uniform stood proudly behind a stand bursting with golden battered morsels in all shapes and sizes. Neat black Kanji script displaying names and prices looked more like poetry than price tags. I guessed at what might be hiding in each deep fried coating – that green thing could be green beans, the orange one was probably carrot, and that non-descript white thing was probably radish. It was usually radish in Tokyo.

“Please, have anything you like,” Miyu said, her head dipping in an almost unperceivable bow.

Sunamachi is a shopping street, teeming with 100 yen shops selling toilet plungers, coat-hangers and greetings cards. Kitchenware spills out of shop fronts and fresh fruit and vegetables sit in cellophane as if frozen in time, because Japan has not yet cut free from the obsession with packaging.

“Japanese think it is more hygienic this way,” Miyu explained.

This street is not on anyone’s bucket list. There’s no historical lure like the Imperial Palace, no picturesque wooden roofs like Asakusa shrine. There is, however, food. Street food. And people. Normal people doing normal things, like shopping for toilet plungers and greetings cards.

I bit into the crisp tempura.

“Good?” Miyu asked.

I nodded.

“Then you should say Oishi, it means yummy.”

We drank tea the colour of algae, mixed with a bamboo whisk until it was frothy. An old iron bell tinkled in the shop as men and women popped in to pick up bags of tea and greeted the owner like an old friend.

At a small stand where faded J-pop posted peeled from the walls, sleek fish flopped in plastic tubs. A teenage girl cut fresh sashimi at lightning speed, looking down when she handed it to us. It tasted like fresh water. Orange fish roe popped salted explosions on my tongue.

“Oishi!” I said and the girl behind the counter beamed and dipped her head.

oishi-hotch-potch

Further along the street, past a little shrine where stone fox faces smiled down at you, two large women in chef whites ladled out Japanese hotch potch. They gave us a plastic sandwich bag full of hot stew. It was miso-thick with a soy tang and huge lumps of radish and lotus that burned the roof of my mouth.

“Oishi!” I said and the two women laughed as if I’d said the funniest thing in the world.

Though it was well before the yard arm, Miyu guided us into an open-faced warehouse of sake bottles. The chill of early April crept in through gaps in the temporary-looking walls. Salarymen in crumpled business suits that looked like they might have slept in the train station skulked around the flourescent sale signs. Prices ranged from 100 yen to 20,000 per bottle. Miyu filled a couple of plastic shot glasses with the clear liquid. It smelled like something you would use to cleanse a wound. The sake burned my throat and sloshed around in the pit of my stomach.

“Oishi,” I winced.

A crispy minced tuna cutlet dipped in a sweet teriyaki sauce soon soaked up the early morning sake. We waddled to a stall selling yakitori – meat on a stick grilled fresh in front of us. I forced each piece of sticky, glazed chicken into the last remaining corners of my stomach.

oishi-yakitori

“Oishi,” I wheezed, convinced that I was filled up to my throat with food.

“We have one more stop,” Miyu said.

I hoped it was just to buy a toilet plunger or greetings card.

The stall sold Japanese sweets. Little globs of green clung to cocktail sticks. It looked like the kind of thing you’d eat in space, or in a dystopian future where food is not to be enjoyed but purely for nutrients. There was no room left in my body. If I ate anything else I would have to sacrifice an organ to fit it in.

“Honestly, I can’t,” I said to Miyu as she held up a green tea mochi sweet.

Her face fell as if I had just insulted her own cooking.

It tasted a bit like grass, and felt like a slug sliding down my throat. It wouldn’t go down, but stuck somewhere in my chest. My face had probably turned the colour of green tea because Miyu’s eyes were wide. But I held on and eventually the final piece of Sunamachi Street sat in my stomach with everything else.

“Oishi,” I said. But I’m not sure Miyu believed me.

Russia: Once Bitten

“Yeah, base camp was amazing,” Edwin said, necking another shot of nasty vodka and wincing as it went down. I copied him, the neat alcohol hitting the pit of my stomach. I had run out of instant noodles and was starting to feel hunger pangs. Edwin was a proper traveller; a medical graduate with a mountaineering addiction. I had just spent 3 months on various beaches in tropical South East Asia, drinking gin and tonic from buckets. Luckily the heat was cranked up to the thirties inside the wood-panelled train compartment; the only evidence of the freezing cold outside was a crispy layer of frost at the bottom of my blanket where it leant against the outer wall. Looking out the train window at the expanse of Siberia it was as if someone was playing the same dirty film reel over and over. Low brown hills splotched with snow.

Half-way through the second bottle of vodka, the squeal of train brakes announced our arrival at a desolate Siberian station. Peering out the window I saw old freight trucks standing as if frozen to the track opposite. Edwin applied a million layers of outdoor-activity wear. I, however, prepared to leave the train for the first time in two days by popping a hat and scarf over my linen jungle clothes.

I spotted little shops stocking beer, vodka and a million varieties of instant noodles. Thank God. Without food, the vodka was going straight to my head. Ice coated the external door, freezing it shut. Edwin battered at it with his shoulder, but it wouldn’t budge. I started to panic. I didn’t fancy living off pocket fluff and toothpaste for the next three days.

“Excuse me!” I shouted down the carriage to no one in particular. Other than the two of us it was packed with Mongolian students returning from New Year, and they had all brought enough steamed pork dumplings for the journey.

The Provinista waddled out of her compartment wearing nothing but her thermal underwear and a deep scowl. She was large and bulky, built like a female wrestler with the skin-tight outfit to match. She grunted something in Russian, draped heavy grey coat over her thermals and started battering the external train door with the fire poker. Eventually, with an almighty ‘crack’ the door swung open and the needle-sharp chill of Russian winter hit me.

Within minutes my hair had frozen and a thin layer of ice from my breath had settled across my scarf. It felt like a thousand tiny needles were pricking the surface of my skin and by the time we reached the shops I couldn’t feel my fingers. We stocked up on instant noodles and more vodka because the timetable was in Cyrillic, for all we knew it could be days until the next station.

Just as I was handing over my roubles to the toothless shopkeeper I heard the shriek of the train whistle. Snatching up my instant noodles and renewed stock of vodka I skidded across black ice to the door of my carriage. The Provinista now hanging out of the open train door and bulging out of her thermal underwear again, shouted garbled Russian at me, holding out a hand. I grabbed on to the metal railing of the door and pain shot through my fingers like I’d been burnt, but I managed to pull myself into the carriage. The Provinista slapped me on the back and laughed like she’s never seen anything so funny in all her life.

I threw my instant noodles onto the bed and stuck my fingers in my mouth. They were in agony. Tears pricked in my eyes as the change in temperature sent searing pain through my digits. The tips were turning a dull blue and Edwin, in his serious mountaineer’s voice, shouted at me to run them under very mildly warm water.

The lukewarm water felt like it was scalding my fingers and I started to cry from the pain. Emerging from the toilet compartment fifteen minutes later I held out my bruise coloured fingers to Edwin like a child with a paper-cut, tears streaming down my cheeks.

“Just what I thought,” Edwin said as he studied my hand, “frostbite.”

“What? Frostbite?” I couldn’t believe it. Frostbite is for intrepid Arctic expeditions, not dancing about on a station platform after too much vodka. I clutched my poor, painful fingers to my chest not knowing what else to do.

Moscow was still three days away.

Note: This is my winning entry for the Pure Travel writing competition, published in Geographic Magazine.

Cambodia: Siem Reap Revisited

I’m hulking the same army-style rucksack and wearing the same bamboo flip-flops as when I last visited Siem Reap, three years ago. The smells of oil palm trees and dusty humidity still lingers in the air. A Thomson plane rests on the runway and seeing it sends a rock of disappointment to the pit of my stomach. Since when was this a package holiday destination?

Arriving by bus from Phnom Penh the first time was an adventure. The bus veered to avoid a cow in the road and hooted at a motorbike with a tawny mess of live chickens strapped to it. I sat at the front with two girls I’d met volunteering. We laughed at lazy water buffalo lolling in puddles too small for them.  The foggy haze of cocktails from buckets the night before hung over our heads, my vocal chords raw from shouting over thumping music. My stomach churned each time the bus lurched onto the other side of the road.

“To being free, independent women!” we had cried, clinking bottles of Angkor beer together before sharing stories of men that had wronged us, told us they loved us and slept around. We were on the other side of the world, bettering ourselves through backpacks and absolutely not thinking about them. A weekend exploring the temples of Siem Reap, taking ‘you don’t know what you’re missing’ photos in baggy Aladdin trousers, trees bursting through crumbling walls in the background was just what we needed.

We sat all day in a coffee shop that first day, talking about men.

Siem Reap 3

Families and couples fidget by a bank of tuk-tuks, the gaggle of drivers dinging their bells and crying over to the new arrivals. I grab Mark by the arm and march straight into the throng of them, pulling on my haggling mask.

“Wait, we can’t get a tuk tuk from the airport,” Mark says, his eyes wide. I remind myself that he’s never been here before.

“This is South East Asia, we can get a tuk tuk anywhere,” I reply.

His apprehension melts away the second our driver starts up the spluttery engine and we’re trundling along the road.

The Thomson plane was an omen. On the outskirts of the town the tuk tuk potters past newly built hotels with dead-faced tour buses lined up outside.

“Pfft, this has all changed,” I hear myself mutter.

Mark looks over at me, the smile fading from his face. This is his first tuk-tuk ride and I’m ruining it. I’m becoming one of those travellers unable to return anywhere because it will never be like the first time.

I remember the bumpy ride out past milky rice fields to our one star guesthouse the first time. We slept under mosquito nets on the roof for $2 a night, because why pay the extortionate $5 for a room inside? What a rip off. It’s not like we were sober enough to care where we were anyway. As I looked up at the stars above my bed, with the mosquito net draped dramatically to one side I thought if only he could see me now, then he would know how adventurous and brilliant I am. I also imagined I was 10% more attractive with sun-bleached hair and multiple beaded bracelets. Maybe tomorrow I would get a tattoo…

We approach Pub Street and on the corners open-air Khmer Barbeques are run by chefs in pristine black uniform. Where were the clattery old food carts? The smell of sizzling noodles and lemongrass is undeniably mouth-watering, but I can’t help it, I mutter the same mantra. This isn’t what it was like three years ago. And listen to me; three years ago! It’s not like I’m re-visiting the Middle East 40 years after a spiritual experience. This is Siem Reap – not Afghanistan.

Every time I say it I can see Mark’s face droop a little. A tuk-tuk emblazoned with the words “Dark Knight tuk-tuk” on the back splutters past us and I open my big mouth again.

“That was just the Batman tuk-tuk when I was last here…”

“I know, I know, it wasn’t like this three years ago,” Mark finishes for me and I shut my mouth.

Siem Reap 2

Three years ago, after scrambling over jungle temples all day and finding the perfect place to pose as a group of free, independent women being spiritual and not thinking about men, we ate the best Pad Thai I’ve ever had. An old lady with gnarled bare feet spooned it out from her clattery cart on the edge of Pub Street. We ate there every night. After that we would wander through the night market, crickets buzzing through the thatched roofs. As I sat with a tin of Angkor beer and fish nibbled at my proudly calloused travellers’ feet, I thought one day I’ll come back here with a boy. I will show him all I know about the world and then it will be perfect.

The driver stops outside our hotel, a proper hotel with a swimming pool and a nice restaurant. Mark is delighted. It’s only $25 dollars a night and feels like 5 stars.

“It’s ok, you can say it,” Mark says as we settle into our air conditioned room with a balcony and proper shower that you don’t have to hold in your hand.

“I’m being annoying, aren’t I?” I ask instead. “It’s just that, I wish you could have seen it with me, the first time, when it was all new and exciting,”

“I wish you could see it with me now,” he says, stretching across the king-size bed.

Japan: Capturing Kibune

The view out to the green mountains dripping with mist was the perfect scene in which to contemplate Descartes, Plato or anyone else from my Introduction to Philosophy textbook. The only sound at Kurama-dera temple was the cheep and pip of birds in the trees. The tang of burning incense floated on the air. I’d put on a long swishy skirt that morning so I could better drift about philosophising up in Kyoto’s mountains. I leant against one of the lanterns that looked like a little red birdhouse, stared across the mountains and thought about the meaning of it all.

Click, whirr, clunk, click. My mum’s ancient camera broke the tranquility.
“Lovely view,” she crowed at me.
Click, whirr. She poked the camera in my face.
“Urgh, mum, you broke my train of thought,” I said. “Get a picture of me philosophising over here instead.”
I swanned over to the pagoda-style temple, leaned against the paper sliding doors and put on my best pondering face. Leaning is the key to being deep and thoughtful. My mum was busy beetling around taking pictures of the lanterns.
“Mu-um! Take a picture!” I wheedled, tranquility well and truly broken.
A man in a navy uniform and white gloves scuttled over to my mum as if she was raising a gun, not a camera.
“Please, no photo!” he said, bowing.
My mum bowed back and I flushed scarlet.
“Right,” my Dad said in his train announcer voice, “shall we press on?”
He didn’t have time for drifting around or cultural emersion. ‘Shall we see if we can get to Kibune over that ridge?’ became ‘we must get to Kibune as fast as possible.’
I hadn’t even got a picture of me next to the temple and, if there wasn’t a picture, how would people know I was even there?

My dad strode off into the ancient trees, nose in the detailed map he’d carried with him everywhere like a security blanket. At the dinner table he would unfold it across little plates of sushi. The rustle of paper would attract the attention of Japanese people who came over to help pore over the map, as if my dad was lost in the seating plan of the restaurant. I was mortified when he sounded out Japanese words to the smiles and delight of everyone around.

Kibune 2

Click, whirr, clunk. A snap of golden sunlight falling across exposed roots, withered like old ladies’ hands.

“Konichiwa!” my mum said, ten decibels louder than I’d heard anyone speak in Japan. A Japanese man in a business suit beamed back at her. I looked at the ground. Why couldn’t my parents just float through this country like me, without making a scene everywhere? I saw a huddle of stones bearing neat Japanese script that looked like something out of Spirited Away.
“Mum! Take a picture of me here!” I said, leaning against the tree and looking wistfully away from the camera.
“Ok,” she said. “Smile!”
I didn’t.

I slouched and slumped my way up more stone steps. My dad stalked on ahead, my mum wandering, clicking and clunking with her camera behind him. She snapped pictures of me staring at the ground, my mouth a straight line of sulk while I wished I was there by myself. I was 18, an adult, too old for stupid family holidays.

Kibune 1

At Kibune we stopped for tea and sushi at one of the restaurants perched on wooden decks over the river, the rush of a small waterfall at our feet. My dad got his beloved map out again and attracted a group of locals like butterflies to a buddleia. An elderly man with a kind face broke into laughter at the table opposite us. He was watching my mum fail to pick up her sushi with her chopsticks. I put my head in my hands. The elderly man caught my mum’s eye and, in a flourished gesture, abandoned his chopsticks and popped a bit of sushi in his mouth with his hands before smiling at her and miming ‘photo?’

“Oh! Arigato!” my mum laughed, and gestured for me to give the man my camera. He shook his head and pointed at my mum’s old clunker.
“Smile!” he said. He must have been looking at me.

The sun began to set and, in the dusk, paper lanterns were lit all around the village. I tried to snap some photos of the scene with my fancy digital SLR, but everything just came out as blurry tracks of light, like the erratic scribbles of a toddler. Click, whirr, click.

We flicked through my mum’s photographs back home, freshly developed with that slightly sticky feel to them. My blurry attempts at art and creativity had already been loaded to a hard drive and forgotten about.
The ones she had snapped of me sulking through the forest painted me as the pensive philosopher, contemplating the roots of trees worn smooth with footsteps. The final picture of the three of us smiling away in that restaurant, the only one where I genuinely looked pleased to be there, is the only one I’ve kept and framed.

Singapore: Singapore Storms

The low rumble of thunder echoed the hollow churning of my jet-lagged stomach as we slipped and skidded across sleek pavements in cheap flip flops. In the two blocks between our hostel and the streets of Chinatown it began to rain. Big rain. The kind that soaks through your skin, never mind your clothes, in two seconds flat. In the humidity of Singapore evenings it carries the smell of palm oil trees on the back of it.

Puffs of tiny insects floated like clouds around bare lightbulbs as we crossed the threshold from towering grey skyscrapers into the Colonial shambles of Chinatown. Ducking under canopies bulging with rainwater, we ignored the gentle caw of women reclining behind rows of nick nacks.

Singapore 1

Temple Street was lined with little restaurants and Mark began his slow, methodical assessment of every single menu on display. The rain was still coming down fast so I grabbed him by the arm and into the closest little eatery with the two most common words on the street: dim sum.

Plumes of steam rose from wicker baskets behind a dull metal counter, the smell of meat and spices added to the humid rain. The gentle “click click” of plastic chopsticks marked time amidst a medley of chatter in Malay, Mandarin and Cantonese. A serious-looking pair of elderly ladies rolled, tweaked and shaped white dough at lightning speed before placing the parcels neatly and carefully in woven baskets for steaming. Glancing around the other tables, Mark quickly assessed the situation. He snatched up the tiny pen and what looked like a Bingo card from the table. I had swept in to take the menu before him but, seeing it didn’t have any pictures, handed it over. Mark scrutinised like a trainspotter over a timetable and ticked off four little boxes on the bingo card, tongue out in concentration.

The rain was still coming down in sheets and neon lights blazing with foreign characters shone through steam billowing from hot-wok noodle stands. It looked like the opening scene from Bladerunner. When the waitress placed our dumpling baskets on the table she laughed at us staring out at the rain.

“It is the same every day,” she said, giving us a crinkly old smile “Good appetite.”

As we tore into fat dumplings, fluffy and sweet Char Sui Bun quickly became my favourite. I burned the roof of my mouth, not wanting to wait another minute for second helpings.

We lived on dim sum in Singapore. The low rumble of thunder became more than an announcement of the daily evening storm, but a dinner bell that my stomach would reply to. Sheets of rain brought the promise of Char Sui, not just clearer skies. Now, when I pop to my favourite dim sum café back home, I don’t just taste fluffy Char Sui Bun and sweet slow-cooked pork, but Singapore storms in each bite as well.

Mongolia:Bayarlalaa

Click, one sheep’s ankle bone chinked against another. I lost another round of Shagai. The wood-burning stove hissed as a drip of melted snow fell from my woolly socks. It was our first day away from the cracked pavements, smoggy chimneys and block buildings of Ulaan Bator. Outside the Ger tent the sun shone over the ragged mountains and snow swept plains of Terelj National Park, but at -40 degrees, we were confined to our canvas room with nothing but a bag of sheep bones to keep us busy.

“Another round?” Eduard asked in his thick South African accent. Two days before, when we stepped off the train and were hit with the raw cold of Mongolian winter, I’d never seen anyone look less like they wanted to be somewhere. Group tours are supposed to be a “great way to meet like-minded travellers”. They are also supposed to involve a group. Eduard and I had barely exchanged six words.

Mongolia Winter

The fire died to embers and cold started to seep through the tent walls. There were only two of us staying at the Ger camp that week, what if the caretaker had forgotten all about us? Eduard’s breath rose from his nose in spirals, like a dragon. I didn’t fancy cuddling up to him for warmth. “Maybe it’ll be warmer in the dinner tent,” I said. Eduard shrugged. A thousand tiny fingers pinched my cheeks and frost settled on my scarf as we waded through snow. Entering the dinner tent, there was no smell of steaming mutton dumplings, no gust of warmth from the fire, just an empty kitchen and a tapestry Ghengis Khan staring back at us. A chunk of my hair had frozen solid.

“Hello!” the caretaker’s smiling face peered through the door flap. “Tonight is New Year. We have Tsagaan Tsar feast with my family.” ‘Feast’ conjured images of wild roast carcasses, wine and a roaring fire.

“Bayarlalaa,” I said – Thank you. Crammed into the caretaker’s tent were his three daughters that cooked, his wife that tended the fires and our driver. The caretaker was dressed in a silk purple robes and little black hat. His family sat on beds around the circular walls, daughters clicking away on pink, breeze-block phones. The table was laid with deep red dried yak meat and dried fruit. In the centre was a tower of sweet bread covered with sugar cubes and solid mare’s milk pellets.

“Bayarlalaa,” I said, stomach growling like a hungry snow leopard. Biting into a milk pellet, I nearly lost a tooth. The caretaker announced something in Mongolian and removed the lid from a boiling pot on the stove. Saliva pooled in my mouth as I braced myself to be hit with the smell of slow cooked meat. It never came. Instead the caretaker ladled milk tea into ornate bowls. I accepted a bowl with my right hand, and let the weirdly salty liquid send warmth to my bones. After I’d chewed a bit of dried yak meat for a few minutes, the caretaker stood up and the tent fell silent. He sang in whispery Mongolian, a tear creeping to the corner of his eye as he placed a hand on his heart. “The Mongolian national anthem,” the driver whispered. Even the youngest, sulking teenage daughter stopped looking at her phone and listened. “Bayarlalaa,” I said as he sat down. The caretaker gestured to me. Panic rose in my chest – my best singing voice sounds like a chorus of cows in labour. There was no way I could follow the caretaker’s delicate ballad. I waved my arms in the universal sign for “no, no, I couldn’t possibly,” but was pulled to my feet anyway. “I really can’t stay…” I started. Eduard got to his feet. “Baby it’s cold outside,” he replied in perfect tenor. By the time we reached the chorus the scowl that seemed like it was chiselled in ice on Eduard’s brow had melted completely. The crowd went wild. As we both bowed, the smell of cooked meat filled the tent as a daughter carried in a tray tottering with slippery mutton dumplings. I accepted a plate piled high as though it were a Grammy, repeating “Bayarlalaa,” over and over to the warm, happy faces around me.

Mongolia Food

We spent the rest of the night filling hollow stomachs with dumplings and listening to the caretaker and his family lilt through ancient folk songs. The driver gave us a song sung right in the back of his throat. Eduard and I lurched through Hey Jude, making everyone join in with the nanananas. We spun a web of in-jokes and instant friendship. Thank God for the caretaker and his family, thank God for warmth, music and laughter. But most of all, thank God for mutton dumplings.

Cambodia: My Selfish Altruism

There had been no training, no police check, no request for my CV – just a dried up whiteboard marker and twenty pairs of Cambodian eyes peeping out from haystack hair, expecting some kind of magic.

“Right class,” I said. “First we will do word search.” Magic indeed.

As I handed out the papers the kids sang number one hits from two years before, turning Akon’s “Sexy Bitch” into “sexy fish”. A little boy at the front in stained clothes two sizes too big for him put his hand up.

“Please, what is the difference between ‘we will’ and ‘we are going to’?”

I tried to remember my 72 hours of online training and drew a blank. “Uh, ‘we will’ is more definite.”

“Oh,” the little boy said, looking as unconvinced as I was.

“Please teacher,” a little girl in faded Disney Princess pyjamas piped up, “’I’m going to’ means you decide in the past. ‘I will’ means you decide right now.”

Heat flushed to my cheeks and all around me the kids started waving their finished crosswords in the air.

I was the only volunteer at the orphanage in Phnom Penh that week. The other classrooms were staffed by Cambodian men in pressed shirts and ties, progressing through a textbook about adverbs and past participles.

Scraps of paper with scratchy doodles littered the wooden desks after class. I’d given up and let them draw. Mr. Sakun, the owner of the orphanage, approached me as I tidied.

“Have you ever made report before?” he asked.

I nodded, thinking of sales reports at the bookshop.

“Good,” he said, looking like I’d just given him another £700. “After lunch you can help me with report for government.”

“But what about the kids?” I asked.

“Oh, ha ha, they have real school in afternoon.”

The clunky old desktop computer whirred and spluttered to life. A crack in the screen’s corner looked like a fat black fly.

“I think you can make it better,” he said.

Mr Sakun had used spellcheck, but only to make things worse. I had no idea how to make the report better. I knew nothing about funding applications or compliance with government legislation. I was useless, as a teacher and an office assistant, but Mr Sakun was patient and his smile never wavered. He insisted I had a nap in the afternoons and took me out to lunch for hours.

I realise now that he was trying to distract me while the kids were with their real teachers. While he shared stories of new government protocols tightening up on illegitimate orphanages, I yearned to be back in the classroom singing songs and helping the kids with their wobbly handwriting. While he was complimenting me on how fast I could type as he dictated a business plan to me in that stuffy office, one selfish part of me thought, “This isn’t what I paid for, my TEFL skills are going to waste!”

I was a voluntourist, a gap-yah of the highest order, but I really thought I was going to help the kids if I could only get out of that office. Anybody could type – I was there to teach, I was there to change the lives of 30 children, in a fortnight.

UNICEF has reported that while the number of orphanages in Cambodia has increased, the number of orphaned children has decreased. Around 75% of children residing in orphanages still have one or both living parents. Orphanages still exist for a legitimate reason; many impoverished parents cannot support their children and with no welfare system, no government safety net in place, the community came up with their own solution.

Life in an orphanage provides (by law) clean pump water, shelter and some form of education, even if it is an idealistic Scottish girl handing out wordsearches. However, what should have been a temporary solution to a legitimate social problem looks more like a permanent fixture. With the help of high priced, short-term voluntourism it has become a full blown industry and, with no background checks and little government legislation to protect the children within the industry, short-term volunteer programmes can end up opening up those children to more harm than good.

The website advertising my volunteer programme showed a smiling girl in front of newly painted friendship mural, arms around smiling children. She was my aspiration. What hadn’t crossed my mind was that, if my hiring process was anything to go by, she was a stranger with no background check, no previous teaching or social care experience and she was left with these vulnerable children unsupervised. Friends International revealed that a number of private orphanages paid impoverished parents for their children in order to get a cut of the voluntourism market, and suggest that such institutions that exist purely for profit have opened a gate to child abuse and trafficking.

Not only are short-term volunteers fuelling an industry that leaves children open to harm, but they are also disempowering the local community by taking the responsibility and power of education away from local Cambodians. It costs roughly $15 a month to send a child to school in Cambodia, so imagine if my £700 was invested in that, or a proper qualified teacher instead of an inconsistent set of lessons, the cost of my grubby guesthouse accommodation and tours to the temples. Perhaps a better volunteer scheme for those with experience in teaching or social services could be long-term projects working with orphanage staff to improve education, standards of living and the implementation of a proper recruitment process.

I don’t want to suggest that all volunteering in Cambodia has a negative impact. Voices from local NGOs speak out against short-term voluntourism. However, they fully encourage long-term project work sharing specialist expertise and empowering local Cambodians to develop their own skills. The orphanage in Phnom Penh didn’t need my sub-par teaching skills, but it did need help. It needed someone to assist with compliance and legislation, but it’s difficult to attract tourists to such worthwhile projects when the feel-good factor of working with children is so strong. I fell into this trap. After all, sitting in an office, sweating under fluorescent lights doesn’t make for a picture perfect travel moment and I already do that at home. Giving something truly worthwhile isn’t always picture perfect, and it’s not always immediately rewarding. It takes time, commitment and research.

**This piece was first published at http://www.darrow.org**