Last year in May, I spent six weeks in Cambodia volunteering with the Hope Agency at an English school in the rural area of Takeo province, 70 km away from Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh. It was an amazing and enriching cultural experience which truly opened my eyes.
Cambodia is a must see destination for any traveller planning a trip around South East Asia. There are many cultural sights and incredibly warm and welcoming people. I arrived to Bakod Village (a community invisible to the modern eyes of Google maps) during the school holidays when all the other volunteers were taking a break from teaching at the beach. Being the only volunteer present you would have thought I felt scared in such a new environment but the villagers made me feel instantly welcome. The only thing that concerned me the first night in the volunteer house was the feeling of insects crawling all over me. Needless to say, this was not my greatest night ever.In the following couple of weeks though I was forced to make friends with a spider called Sydney, who was sleeping at the top of my mosquito net and eating all the other little things crawling around, the green lizards hushing around the walls and a rat I called Ratatouille (perhaps due to a feeling of isolation).
During my time at Hope Agency I learnt that school holidays occur quite often due to various occasions such as weddings in the local village, very rainy afternoons and sometimes for reasons unknown to everyone. I remember sitting underneath the roof of the open-air classroom planning another day’s lesson and desperately waiting for the rain to arrive in the afternoon to release us from the boiling heat and humidity.
Jason, the founder of Hope Agency and also a local from the village, invited me to visit his cousin’s family. A few hours of travelling turned into a day and a half squeezed into a car that barely worked in the heat with six other adults, three children and many bags of rice. I have never been that tired and hot in my life but in exchange I learnt many things about the Khmers, the predominant ethnic group in Cambodia, and their culture in a short period of time.
I was overwhelmed with sadness seeing the poverty reigning across the country to an extent I would have never imagined. But the love and respect all Jason’s family members had for each other and how they shared everything they had made me feel more comfortable. Luckily I had Jason to translate and explain, however, you do not always need words to understand someone’s language. Putting your hands together as if praying and a nod shows respect and means thank you.
The following day we went to see Preah Vihear, which is a Hindu temple situated atop a 525-metre cliff in the Dângrêk mountains in Cambodia, right across the border to north eastern Thailand. There has been an ongoing dispute between Cambodia and Thailand regarding the ownership of the temple, but it was officially settled by the International Court of Justice in 1962 when the ICJ determined that the temple belonged to Cambodia. Today, Preah Vihear is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with a lingering military presence, which, despite this, is very peaceful.
Before returning to school we stayed in Phnom Penh for a couple of days. Phnom Penh is a busy, humid and chaotic city and brought Cambodia’s history so much closer to me. Visiting the Killing Fields very close to Phnom Penh literally makes you feel like you are walking through a huge graveyard as you are walking on fragments of human bones and remnants of clothing that are scattered around the place. The most visual memory that stayed with me is a tree which was named the killing tree (Chankiri Tree) against which children and infants were smashed to death so they would not be able to take revenge against the deaths of their parents one day. Next to it, visitors would leave their bracelets in memory of the children.
While Cambodia remains one of the poorest countries in South East Asia, Khmers are warm and kind in their nature with an appreciation for things we forget to value in our society such as time and patience. The children at Bakod Village taught me how to take a moment to sit back, smile and enjoy the moment of being with each other without the distractions of the modern world.
I would like to invite you to find out more about Hope Agency and volunteering in Cambodia. Helping Hope Agency means helping Cambodian children to learn English and therefore to establish a better future for themselves and their families www.hopeagency.org