The dull thud of distant artillery and the sharp crack of small arms fire

We are here in Cambodia and on our first night we are awoken several time with the realisation that something strange and possibly quite bad is going on.

We keep hearing the dull thud of distant artillery. Not constant, but quite intermittent, just so much so that we drift off to sleep again and then are re-awoken by the sharp crack of small arms fire, not all that far away.

Having read up a bit on Cambodia before arriving here, our minds are full of Pol Pot and the civil war. Then, just a week before we set off. There was a documentary on the idiot-box about the assassination of a local journalist who had been campaigning for civil rights, and against nepotism and corruption in the government. He was shot by the secret police who staged it as some sort of ‘hit’ over an unpaid debt.

So, our minds were fertile ground for a disturbance. We didn’t sleep well. However, in the morning we awoke, eventually, to find that the house is under the shadow of a huge mango tree and the fruit is in full season just now. When the ripe fruit drops and hits the ground, it makes a dull thud, but when it falls onto the flimsy tin roof of the pottery shed, it makes a sharp metallic report, not unlike distant small arms fire.

It was a great relief and we were able to sleep well after that, even with the noise.


We soon get accustomed to eating half a dozen fresh mangoes for breakfast each morning. We even make tropical mango and banana pizza for the family before we leave.

A Visit to the Mountain

We have just enough time left to take the afternoon ‘off’ and Paruth suggest that we should all go to the mountain. There is a temple at the top of the mountain, and we still have one more day left on our temple passport tickets. Entrance to the temples is free for citizen. It’s only visitors like us who have to pay.

After work is finished for the day we shower and get ready for our evening visit to the mountain temple.
On our way out-of-town towards the mountain, we pass along the flood plain of the Tonle Sap lake’s high water mark. This extended riparian zone is densely populated and extensively farmed at the moment, as it is the dry season and all of this flood plain is fertilised and enriched each year by the silt deposited by the  flooding. We pass a beautiful Lotus farm. We have to stop and stroll along the elevated wooden plank walkways. There are several little thatched shelters along the path, that you can rent these little private spaces for a fee to relax on an hourly basis. It’s a lovely scene.
We drive through what appear to be impoverished villages, with seriously cramped living conditions in very small stilted houses and shacks. Life looks tough for these people. We stop to buy some bottled water and a coconut to drink. Paruth tells me that the lady she has just spoken to tells her that food is in very short supply here just now. Everyone is hungry at this time of low water. There aren’t many fish to catch just now and not every one has access to sufficient land to grow rice.
As we travel on along the road, we pass a lucky family who obviously has some land, as they have their rice harvest all spread out to dry on a large blue plastic tarpaulin. The rice gets raked over a few times a day to expose all the grain to the air and sunshine to finish drying it all out before being bagged.
We arrive at the foot of the mountain, leave the tuk tuk and scale the 7,000 steps up the mountain (or so it seems) in the afternoon heat. We are here to see the sunset on the temple at the top of this mountain. When we finally arrive at the top I realise that there is actually a road that goes all the way to the top, as a couple of cars arrive while we are there. There is an ancient shrine just below the top. I presume that this might be the earliest religious site up here, but there is a little complex of brick and stone temples dating from the angkor period. They glow in the light of the afternoon setting sun.
There are a few monks living up here and it appears that there is an old orchard of fruit trees and of particular interest to me is the fact that there is a cashew nut grove up here. I’ve never seen a live cashew nut tree and these trees just happen to be in fruit right now. I know from reading and my interest in gardening, self reliance and whole foods etc, that the farming of cashews is a very poisonous business. The pods that hold the precious nuts, contain a toxic juice that burns the hands of the workers that collect them and shell them.  Paruth tells us that the fruit that supports the nut is delicious and can be eaten raw. We pick some and eat them. The fresh fruit is slightly sweet, delicious, vaguely like an apple in taste, but softer and juicy, with a dry aftertaste. Quite dry! Everyone who eats the fruit, coughs a minute after swallowing. It happens to everyone who tries it. It makes us all laugh.
You have to be carefull to wash your hands after touching the juice, as it can be irritating and can stain clothes black.
We walk to the edge of the mountain and look down on the paddy fields below in the setting sun.
We travel back home and get some take away BBQ pork from a local restaurant. It comes with a basil sauce and some salad. No one seems to like the basil sauce. I finish my share and I am the only one to eat the salad.
I know the rules, only eat well-cooked food and boiled water. But I’ve been here for two weeks now and nothing has happened so far, so I get slack.  I soon pay the price. I’m up all night on the loo with the runs. I wake with a head ache and feeling very tired and weak. It’s food poisoning! I don’t even feel like drinking water, but I force myself too. It’s a good lesson. Never eat un-cooked food. As it turns out though, it wasn’t the salad. It was the basil sauce, as we discover. Paruth fed all the left over basil sauce and rice to her dogs after dinner and they both threw up and were very quiet all the next day, apparently feeling quite unwell.
I know how they feel!

Aproaching Nirvana on one Leg

I’m inclined to take the risk of being totally boring now and tell a little story about our brief visits to the Angkor Temples and Palaces. I’m sure that everyone has seen a doco or read a book about these amazing places, but until I got there, I didn’t really understand the scope and scale of them. They are quite impressive.

As we are ahead of schedule and coping well with all the variations in alterations that we are encountering, we take ‘off’ another morning and hire a tuk tuk to take us to the temples that are just half an hour away. These are some of the most famous temples in the world. I’m told that Angkor Wat is the largest in the world? It is one of the most important world heritage sites.We set off early, as we want to be home before the afternoon heat sets in.

There has recently been a steep increase in the cost of the temple visitors passes. It costs us about $170 for the two passes. Our driver knows what most people want to see and the best way to approach it and in which order. He’s used to it. We trust him. There are a lot of temples around Siem Reap, not just the famous ones like Angkor Wat. Over the three trips that we make, we venture to the West, North and East from Siem Reap.

Of course we go to Angkor Wat first, everybody does, and I must say that it is a very impressive place. Actually, it’s a Palace and not a temple. It’s huge! The experience was a bit spoilt though by people like me being there. I’m spoiling it for others too. There are just too many people to be able to see things without being nudged or shoved. It proves quite hard to get a photo of some of the carvings that are situated in passageways. I’m a pain in the arse to someone else who is trying to do the same thing. Luckily as we arrived early. We beat the rush, but it soon starts to fill up.

In the busiest areas, they have laid down timber walk ways and wooden stairs to protect the ancient stone from being worn away by people like me! I rather like the polished wooden boards. As the morning wears on, more and more people arrive, It’s so crowded, there is an hour wait to go to the upper temple. Instead, we decide to leave. This proves to be a very good decision. As the other temples are not so crowded and busy. We will return on another day.

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Even though there are a lot of people here, patience is rewarded. But there is always one person who unexpectedly steps into the frame!


The next temple that we visit is Angkor Thom.. There are a lot fewer people even though it is a lot later in the day. I think that I like this temple a lot more. I’m quite taken with all the buddhas faces.


We move on to other temples near by. In places the tress have taken root. There was once a building under this tree. It’s now inside it. These trees are well rooted and it’s not just the trees!



In the early morning there are fewer people around, so some of the local inhabitants make use of the privacy, but there is always some paparazzi around.



Visiting a buddhist temple can lead one to some deep introspection. Like “Does my arse look big in this temple” while ascending the stairway to heaven.

There is quite a lot of reconstruction and repair work being done on parts of all the temples. Some more substantial, well-financed and better executed than others!


All the walls are covered in carvings. There are a loads of them on all the temples. Far too many to take in, in three 5 hour visits.


I’m here contemplating buddhist teachings and right there in front of me is the salient reminder that no matter how hard we strive, we are still shackled by our desires! This important message from the deity does not escape my attention.


Maybe I’m going about this the wrong way? Maybe I should be approaching Nirvana on one leg?


The sculptures show us how. Now, if Janine and I just practice in our spare time. Maybe…?

Changing the World, One Kiln at a Time, or 3

Nina and I have come to Cambodia as volunteers to help a potter here with her kiln. She is a single mum with kids and could use a bit of help. There are many things that we could do and ways that we could volunteer, but we have been asked to come by someone with local knowledge, who knows the situation here and also knows my particular skill set. I have been working on this private program for some years now. Restoring pottery equipment for someone who then sends it all over to Cambodia as donations to potters workshops. Now the time has come to put our feet on the ground and get more involved.

We are not working under any particular program or an NGO. We have come at our own expense as a private aid gesture to hopefully, pass on some low tech solutions that will be acceptable and that may prove to be incorporated into the local knowledge base long-term?

This potter, Paruth, has had some help previously from another Australian potter, Bronwyn Kemp, about 8 or 9 years ago. Bronwyn came over here and helped build a small gas-fired kiln from what was, more or less, scrap iron and fence wire. She did an amazing job and the kiln has been worked to death since then, sometime being fired twice a day. However, time and work take their toll, and this fantastic little kiln has had its day and is in need of some restoration and repair. The floor has collapsed, so the potters simple solution was to build up a pile of small local red bricks under the kiln to support the old floor. Fantastic! A really creative solution that solved the problem. However the roof has also collapsed in as well and will need a total rebuild.

We have organised, through another Australian, Ian Brookes, to get some kiln building materials delivered to the site in advance of our visit, so that we can get a lot done during our two-week visit. From the photos sent to me previously, I thought that this little kiln had potential to be rebuilt. However, as a safety precaution, we are also planning to build a new and slightly more robust kiln that will have the potential to last 25 years?

I sent scale drawings with dimensions of the metal work that would need to be ordered in and welded prior to our arrival, but this turned out to be too difficult for the local steel worker to manage. So we abandoned the attempt to get the steel work done in advance and just concentrated on getting the necessary materials all collected together, so that when we arrived, we could be most productive.

As it turned out, the metal work that was done prior to our arrival wasn’t done very accurately, as our welder wasn’t particularly literate or numerate. The kiln frame was the wrong size and constructed at 90o to the plan. However, with so much already invested in the construction and with so little time. I sat down and resigned the kiln concept to fit what had been done already and luckily. I was able to make a suitable plan that could accommodate everything that we had without too much loss of function or efficiency.

So the new kiln will be a bit shorter than planned and a little bit tighter in width, but it should be OK. Ian Brookes had sourced some zinc metal primer paint in advance of our visit, so we were able to prime and rust proof the mild steel kiln frame before lining it. This should make it last a lot longer.

We had also arranged to have two sheets of Stainless steel delivered in advance so that we could make a kiln cladding that would last as long as the primed frame. Funnily, stainless steel is actually quite easy to get in Cambodia, as many things are made out of it these days. Our welding man is only 100 metres up the street from the pottery and he is very proficient with TIG welding stainless steel balustrades and safety grills.

It takes us 3 days to get the kiln frame welded up. A door made and hinged onto it, then painted and panelled in stainless. I have worked it out, so that there will be just enough stainless steel sheeting left over, so that I can put a new roof and floor in the old kiln as well. If we have enough time?

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There doesn’t seem to be any concept of OH and S here. The welder works without any of the usual safety gear that I use at home. Not even shoes, just thongs. His only concession to some sort of safety is to wear sunglasses when welding. He will be deaf and blind in 10 years. I give him my ear plugs and get Paruth to explain to him that it is important to preserve what he still has. She tells me he doesn’t care. When I return the next day, I can see that my ear plugs are thrown in the dust pile. I say that I will leave all my safety gear that I have brought with me and donate it to him. She says not to bother, he isn’t interested. he will just throw them away. I feel bad about this, but can’t see what else I can do to help him learn more about his safety and health. I’ve sown the seed. I won’t be here to keep reminding him.

Once the kiln is finished, quite late in the evening, the welder man delivers it by walking it down the road on its castors in the evening traffic. The next few days are taken up with lining the kiln. It’s a very hot, sticky, sweaty job in the 40o heat and 80% humidity. I drink a lot of water. Janine and Paruth help all the way through the procedure. Paruth makes notes and takes loads of pictures, should she ever need to make repairs herself in the future.

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The kiln will need a spy hole and bung, so I decide to make one on-site from the local clay, opened up and made more thermally shock resistant by wedging in a huge amount of rice husks and a lot of sandy clay that has been sieved out of the normal throwing clay that they use here. This will make the clay more open structured and porous.

I make a couple of examples using an improvised tapered profile tool to set the constant taper for both the inner and outer form. Then I teach Paruth how to do it. She makes another 3 sets. So now we have spy holes and bungs for both kilns and a few spares. But most importantly, Paruth now has the knowledge and skills to make any number of them that may be required into the future.  Teach a man to fish!

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By the end of the first week, the new kiln is done and I turn my attention to revamping the old kiln. It needs to be stripped down and cleaned, then the new stainless steel panels need to be installed in the floor and roof, and finally the lining restored. As most of the

ceramic fibre is still intact. I decide that the best option is to just install new 1400oC hot face lining over the older damaged lining. However, I install 3 new layers of floor and roof to complete the job.

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I wouldn’t normally use ceramic fibre for the floor. I’d prefer to finish the floor with a layer of  light weight insulating refractory bricks for long-term durability. Unfortunately, the insulating bricks that I ordered turn out to be wrongly labeled and when we open the pack, we find that they are very heavy and dense 70% alumina fire bricks! These are not suitable for this kind of kiln. So another change of plan, You have to be flexible and work with what you have. I decide to make the floor entirely out of fibre and lay an old kiln shelf down to support the props. It’ll work fine and be lighter and a bit more fuel-efficient.

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I suggest that as we have 3 spare days left. I’d like to see the temples, but I can also fit in time to build them a wood fired pizza oven. This turns out to be the most popular suggestion that I have made on the entire trip! We cobble together a few bricks and a sheet old roofing iron to make an arch form-work. The oven is almost completed in one day but needs a second day to finish it off, as it is getting too dark to see properly as I try to chisel the final key stone bricks into shape to complete the arch.

We cover the bricks with a layer of rice husks and the sandy clay to act as some sort of insulation layer, then light it up and start to pre-heat it.

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We pre-heat the oven with old dried coconut husks, which is the cheapest, readily available fuel around here, and end the day with a pizza dinner. Everybody seems more excited about having Pizza for dinner than they are about the two new kilns! Everyone is here, the kids, the helpers, Paruth, the welder and Janine and I. We make 7 pizzas during the evening.
We experiment with what we can find in the local market. We make Cambodian pizzas. My favourite is pineapple, mango and banana with a sprinkling of palm sugar as a desert pizza.

Tonlè Sap

We are in Cambodia to help a local potter here up in the North of the country. Situated outside of Siem Reap on the way to the Tonle Sap lake.

The lake is right down to just 1 metre depth now, as it is the dry season here. The Tonle Sap lake is filled to 10 metres depth during the wet season, as water from the Meekong river floods into it. The Tonle Sap river flows backwards for a few months as the lake fills. Once it has reached capacity, the excess water then flows further down the Meekong and out to the sea.
The Tonle Sap lake supports about 90,000 people throughout the year, but many, many more during the wet season. Everyone here lives from fishing on the lake. We are situated just 20 minutes from the lake, so take one morning ‘off’ from our work with the potter to visit the lake in the cool of the morning. We are here right in the middle of the hot season. Its sweltering heat with very high humidity. We are finding it quite taxing on our energy levels.
We hire a local tuk tuk driver to take us to the lake, he is also our interpreter as well.
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5 Minutes out along the road to the lake, I notice that the local creek gets a bit wider, and then a lot deeper and the roadside houses that were once at ground level are suddenly up on wooed stilts. This is the very edge of the high water mark, when the lake swells from its current 2,700 sq kms up to 16,000 sq. kms. It occupies 20% of the country’s land mass at high water and creates umpteen thousands of extra seasonal jobs. At its zenith, it is the largest freshwater lake in Asia and the third largest freshwater lake in the world.
The back yards of the these riparian households are currently rice paddies as it is now semi-dry. During the wet season though, these farmers, will transform themselves into fishermen, as the back of the house will be at water level.
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As we get closer to the lake, the houses here appear to be floating on their long spindly wooden legs. These are permanent dwellings, but there are also any number of tiny one-room shanty dwellings that are built each year, to take advantage of the exposed dry land for farming small crops. I can imagine that the soil here is reasonably fertile, as it gets topped up with a layer of fresh silt each wet season. These little houses are then pulled down before the inundation and moved to higher ground, where they are stored until next dry season. It’s such a lot of work, but everyone must eek out a living wherever they can.
Once we get to the waters edge, we park the tuk tuk and transfer to a small boat to venture out onto the lake to visit the floating villages. These are permanent villages that literally float on the water and rise and fall with the natural level of the water, as all the houses are built on pontoons, constructed from what-ever is cheap and will float. The used 200 litre diesel fuel drums used to bring fuel to the lakes edge have a second life, as they make great ‘floats’ under the raft-like houses.
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The people who live on this lake must travel to the edge of the lake whenever they have sufficient fish to sell. They trade their catch for things that they cannot make for them selves, such as diesel oil and rice. It’s a very poor, hand to mouth existance.

While the kiln cools

While I wait for my kiln to cool I have a day to look around. I am travelling with my friend Len Smith and our guide/translator Chen. We decide to take the few kilometre walk down town to the new Tao Xi Chuan Ceramic Centre. This was just in the early reconstruction stage 2 years ago, when I was last here. It is now open and looking very up market indeed. There were apparently 10 major government owned fine porcelain factories in Jindezhen before the economic reconstruction. There are now none, but this one has a new lease of life as an arts precinct. Now renamed as “Ceramic Art Avenue”.

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All the old factories have been cleaned out made into retail spaces, small workshops and cafes. The old kiln cars are re-purposed into planter boxes. It’s all very swish and up-market.

Later we catch the No 18 bus out to the Royal China Works. There is an excellent museum and a display centre where we watch the workers paint blue-on-white and poly-chrome enamels. The level of craftsmanship is astounding. Len was here earlier in the week for a meeting while I was head down and butt up throwing and turning. He tells me that he saw this same lady starting the drafting out of this vase. Now at the end of the week she is half way through it.

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Next we watch a bloke spend 5 mins painting 2cm of one colour of one part of a border decoration! The lines so steady, so fine and so consistent. Then the lady who is applying on glaze enamel, slowly but surely in-filling the original blue-on-white pattern.

Next we visit the throwing room to see a virtuoso thrower turn 60 kilos of clay into half of a 2 part pot. He has spent the morning making 20 bases and now close to 5 pm he is making the last of the 20 top sections. he rattles them off every 5 mins.

It is a 2 man job to centre the 60 kgs and then open it up and throw it out into the open vase form.

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They go at it with astonishing efficiency. The wedger has the next series of 15 kg lumps ready as the last pot is carried out the back to the drying area and the new pot is on its way.


If I didn’t already feel a bit amateurish I surely do now.

45 seconds in the life of China

We have just watched an amazingly skillful potter make upwards of 700 pots in a day without seeming to put any effort into it, and without getting any clay splatter on himself either. Amazing!

This potter fills the workshop shelving to capacity in one day, then moves on to another workshop. He’s a professional thrower. Everyone here is a specialist. I explain to my guide and translator, Chen, that I do everything myself. He is amazed when I tell him that I do everything myself from digging the clay(stone), crushing and grinding it, to making the fire bricks for my kiln by hand. He just can’t get his head around it. Why don’t I just employ a specialist to do the boring bits? I tell him that it isn’t like that in Australia. There aren’t any specialists to call on.

Two days later we are back in the same workshop to see the ‘turner’ at work. He has arrived now that the pots are firmed up to trim the bases. He works in tandem with the ‘thrower’, following on behind him with a 2 day gap. They work together but never meet. Always separated by the drying period. The thrower has thrown 3/4 of a tonne of clay into these flower pots on this occasion. The turner guy has to trim them up into shape, removing the excess clay from the base and correcting the form if necessary around the rim and foot. He gets through 10 double-ended turning tools each day. Wearing them down to a level of bluntness where they no longer work efficiently enough and slow him down. He travels with a bag full of them.

I ask the turner guy through my friend and interpreter, Chen, how all this works out. The turner removes about a 1/4 of the weight of the pot. The bases are thick when thrown off the hump. The thrower doesn’t use a wire. It slows him down too much. He just twists the pot off the hump with a flick of his fingers, leaving a very thick base. The turner has to remove all of this. It takes the turner almost twice as long to turn the bases, as it takes the thrower to make the pot. However, the turner gets paid almost twice as much. The thrower gets 1.5 rmb. per pot. That’s 30 cents. The turner gets 2.5 rmb per pot. That’s 50 cents. The turner will be here for almost 2 days to clear the shelves.

It works out that these highly skilled guys are earning about Au$200 each day. That’s really good money in China. But their job-life expectancy is very low. They burn out fast. I ask politely through Chen, how long will he be doing this? 10 years is enough. It’s far too boring to do it for very long! What will he do next? He is saving money to start his own business. This is only a means to an end. A better future awaits him somewhere.

I ask what he does at night i.e. does he have a hobby or other interests? No! He just watches television while he sharpens all his blunt tools ready for the next day. I ask why he doesn’t use tungsten tipped tools? He replies that he doesn’t understand the question. After some probing, it transpires that he hasn’t even heard of such a thing. Everyone here uses these cheap, locally made, mild steel, black-smithed turning tools. They are cheap and readily available and easily sharpened with a hand file. They also go blunt very fast. He is used to spending a few hours each night filing them sharp.

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I notice that he uses a rubber glove and the cut-off fingers of a rubber glove on the other hand to stop the abrasion of the clay from wearing out the skin on his hands, just the same as I do. However, I only use the rubber finger stall on one finger

I ask him what he thinks about all the dry clay dust floating off the turnings. Why isn’t he wearing a mask? He is generating a small mountain of dust all around himself. I can’t even see the wheel, as all the turnings are piled up and flowing down and away in a cascade of dust. He doesn’t understand this question either. I explain, through Chen, that clay dust causes lung disease if inhaled over a long period of time. He replies that he has never heard of this theory. Neither has Chen. I leave it there. I have sown the seed.

When these pots are bone dry the glazer will turn up and spray the glaze on them. That will take a couple of days. Finally they will be passed on to the decorating girl. She seems to work 7 days a week and hand paints each one. She does about 100 per day. It’s a never ending job. The thrower will be back next week, as soon as the shelves are emptied. This team seem to keep half a dozen potteries busy.

On the way home I can’t help but photograph the amazing wiring that is in use here. As the holder of a limited electrical licence, I’m quite in awe. I love the dual function of clothes line and high voltage wiring.

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China is an amazing place. I’ve been thinking about these amazing potter specialists here. As I place my own few pots out in the laneway, in the sun to dry. I’m thinking, one pot every 45 seconds! I reflect that I have been here for 2 weeks and so far only managed to make forty-five 2nds! I live in hope.