Interesting times in Phnom Penh

I left early to tether at Dangkor Primary and Secondary School in the south of Phnom Penh. I picked up Philip, my helper, along the way. Arriving at the school, we found the teacher in charge. He had a loudhailer, which was good for crowd control. The kids helped with pulling out the tarpaulin for the balloon and we set about laying out and inflating the balloon. Around 600 kids from the primary and secondary school watched. The balloon was kept inflated for about 30mins and I answered numerous questions the kids had.

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It was very hot packing up the balloon, around 35deg and high humidity. A few of the kids also helped out. After, I went into one of the classes to speak to around 50 kids. I spoke to them about New Zealand, the balloon and the postcards which kids in New Zealand and Australia had made for them. Luckily I had the UNICEF education coordinator for the Phnom Penh area to translate. They were very attentive and did a great job at making postcards for me which I will share with kids in other countries. It was smiles all round when I presented them with postcards from kids in New Zealand and Australia.

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After the class visit, we till needed to load the balloon onto the truck. I tested out the ramp system on the truck for loading the balloon.  It works, but takes a while to set up. I went with Philip to have lunch after, the UNICEF education coordinator had work to do.

The following few days were spent around Phnom Penh organising and having a look around. Phnom Penh is full of people on motorbikes. There is a lot of traffic, but it moves and I didn’t often see big traffic jams. You do have to watch out for kamikaze motorcyclists and erratic moves from traffic of all modes of transport. There is never a dull moment driving there.

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On the Friday was the tether at Wat Bottom, which is one of the main parks in Phnom Penh and just along the road from the Royal Palace. I arrived before everyone else and as usual, proceeded to drive onto the park to go to the area where I would display the balloon. Unfortunately some of the paving on the park sunk as I drove on as the truck was too heavy. I stopped and one of the park’s police came over. In the end more police came over and when others arrived from UNICEF, we tried to convince them to allow us to still inflate the balloon and the damage would be taken care of afterwards. It was not a normal situation and after some waiting around, I went to the police station to make a statement. The balloon inflation would have to wait for another day.
The police station was on the outskirts of the city, so it took a while to drive there. The organiser of the permission for displaying the balloon at the park came later and translated. The policeman was very nice and could speak a bit of english. He said I would need to go to the municipality in the afternoon and they would keep the truck in the compound until I paid the damages. That was fair enough I thought. The police compound was full of cars that had been involved in crashes. The policeman said that three people a day die in road accidents in Phnom Penh.

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I went to the UNICEF office after, then to the municipality. It was great that three UNICEF staff came along as they knew a few people working at the monicipality. I wrote an apology letter and they reviewed the police statement and decided on how much the damages would be. In the end it was all very reasonable and I was never asked to pay ‘extra’ money. Once I paid, the car was released and I went back to the police compound to retrieve the truck. It was the same officer from the morning and we had a good chat.
All in all, it was a very trying day and I was very happy it was over. Some lessons were learnt, but I commend the police and municipality in Phnom Penh for their handling of the situation. A big thank you to UNICEF Cambodia for helping me out.

I spent the weekend looking around Phnom Penh, including the infamous Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. It is the site of a school which the Khmer Rouge turned into a prison where thousands of people were tortured. It is quite an eye-opener and horrible to think what happened there. That era still weighs heavily on Cambodia today built I think there is so much potential for the future of the country.

I spent Monday sorting out the permission to again get the permission to inflate at the park. It was granted and the inflation the next morning went very well. We were asked by the police to delay the start of the inflation until the Prime Minister drove past, which we did. There were a lot of media there and the inflation went perfectly. I kept the balloon up for about 30mins and it drew a good crowd. I’m not sure if a balloon has ever been inflated in Phnom Penh before.
The story was covered locally by TV, print and radio. Photos of the balloon were picked up by international media also, including The Guardian in the UK, the Wall Street Journal online, Global Post and Yahoo to name a few. Well worth the effort and couldn’t have been done without UNICEF Cambodia and Philip Sen from www.tell-our-story.com.

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Directly after the inflation, I drove to the Cambodian/Thai border. It took 7hrs, but the road was OK. If you have to drive from Phnom Penh to Poi Pet, I would highly recommend taking the southern AH1 route rather than route 6, as a big part of the latter is under construction and is still quite a way from being finished. This means a lot of it is not sealed or the seal is broken. It is also quite muddy after it rains.

I made it to the border and didn’t have any problems. The same Customs official that I had coming into Cambodia stamped my truck’s carnet out of Cambodia. It took a whole of two minutes, which must be some kind of record.
There was hardly anyone at the border compared to the throng of people when I came into Cambodia, (caused by the new Thai military rulers ordering all illegal Cambodians out of the country).
There was a bit more paperwork on the Thai side, but all straightforward. I drove for a couple of more hours, heading in the direction of Vientiane in Laos. I pulled over at a petrol station for the night and had a very good sleep after the 550km drive and inflation in the morning.

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It was another long day of uneventful driving the following day to cover the 550kms. I used the GPS on my phone to find my way to the main road that goes from Bangkok to Vientiane.  I arrived at the border on dusk. The Thai side was not a problem. I was used to dealing with Thai Borders, it was the third Thai border crossing I had been to. I crossed the Thai/Laos Friendship Bridge across the Mekong River, went through the wheel wash for biosecurity on the other side, sorted out my visa on arrival, got my carnet stamped at Customs, (they weren’t too sure what to do with it, so I pointed them in the right direction) and sorted out insurance for the truck. In all, it took about 1.5hrs. I stopped at a petrol station  just outside of Vientiane and spent the night there.

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The following day I went into the city and had a look around. It was very hot and humid and the city didn’t seem very busy, even though around 750,000 people live there. You can still see some old French architecture as it was under French rule for quite a period of time after 1893. I found the place where the balloon might be inflated, then found a place to wash my truck.
I looked for a place to stay the night and spotted an empty lot of land close to the river. I asked the neighbouring shop owner who owned it, he replied, ‘The Prime Minister’. I was a bit surprised. He then went on to stay that a hotel down the road was leasing it. I went and talked to them and they were happy for me to stay there.

The next morning I met with UNICEF, which was just a short way down the road. We made a plan for when I come back to Vientiane in September and sorted out documentation. That afternoon I went for a walk, took some washing to a laundry and spent a few hours planning upcoming events.

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I left the following morning for the long drive to Chiang Mai in Thailand. I picked up my now clean laundry and got to the border at around 9am. There were many people there as it was a Saturday morning. It took quite a bit longer than I had planned, around 2.5hrs to go through the Laos, then Thai side. I spoke to the heads of Customs on both sides and they processed my carnet. I was also trying to convince the head on the Thai side to allow me to keep my truck in Thailand for 10 weeks as I will be going to France for two months soon. After some convincing, he did agree, but when we went to the offices where they process the importing and exporting, it had all ready been processed for 1 month and it couldn’t easily be changed. He said that there is a Customs office in Chiang Mai and I should try to extend it there. If I can’t, it will be onto Plan B: Driving back to Vientiane and storing the truck there.

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I drove to Udon Thani, where I dropped into the airport to change money and after bought fuel. I decided not to take the main road to Chiang Mai for most of the way, but a road further north. It was interesting to go through the various villages and then through a national park, complete with ‘beware of elephants’ signs. I had never seen those before. There were a lot of hills to cover and the going was slower than I had thought, not helped by a period of torrential rain. The truck’s engine was overheating on some of the hills, but would quickly recover. It will get sorted when it goes for its service when I return to Vientiane. I’ve been recommended a good mechanic there.
I arrived into Chiang Mai at around 10.30pm and found the ‘909 Balloon Resort’, which is the base of Thailand Balloon Adventure. They are my hosts and have been arranging the permission for my activities here.

The next day was spent looking around the flying area and I was also taken to a very local restaurant for dinner. The food was very good.

This morning, we left at 5am to go to the launch site on the outskirts of Chiang Mai. Three balloon ground crew also joined us. The balloon was set up efficiently and we were off. It was nice to free-fly again as the previous events were only balloon inflations. I enjoyed the views of the rice paddies, temples, villages and hills around.  After 30mins I saw a big, dry field, (which are few and far between given the number of flooded rice paddies at this time of year) and decided to land there. The crew were there and we packed up the balloon, went to re-fuelling and had breakfast. It was a great first flight in Thailand.

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I have three days before the next event where the balloon will be inflated at Three Kings Monument in the middle of Chiang Mai as part of a UNICEF Thailand event promoting their partnership with Special Olympics Thailand.
A lot of the coming days will be spent planning the Central Asian leg of the project.

About the author: Andrew Parker

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