Project Growth Cambodia
Exploring Cambodia, known as the Land of Smiles, is more than just a trip. It’s a challenge, a journey, and an extremely rewarding human experience. Although Cambodia’s civil war ended a long time ago, its legacy continues to haunt this beautiful country, I could feel it. Cambodia remains one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia, and children are particularly vulnerable. Our project? Sharing love, time and knowledges with two hundred disadvantaged kids living in Siem Reap, gateway to the famous Angkor’s temples. In brief, Project Growth is about learning from each other, growing as humans, and exploring new cultures.
After a good night’s sleep in the Changi Village Hotel, hidden from the hustle of city life, at the East end of Singapore, we flew to Siem Reap. This city is surreal, with its karaoke bars (in the famous Pub Street) and souvenir shops, but also its beautiful nature full of history. We stayed, for the most part, at the Borei Angkor Resort, supposed to be one of the best of the city. And it was surprisingly cheap! For only 70 bucks a night, we had a beautiful and comfortable room, not to mention the amazing full buffet breakfast… I’m still dreaming of it!
To join the small school where we were going to volunteer, we had to take a tuk tuk ride for about twenty minutes. An adventure! Certainly the most economical means of transport in Siem Reap, tuk-tuk is the most classic and comfortable way to get around. With a noisy motor scooter, tuk-tuk are small two-wheeled trailers with a roof and two long seats on a motorcycle. It is a popular means of transport here. It is also a good way to visit Angkor Wat and the Siem Reap area without suffering from the unbearable sun. You can request a tuk-tuk for day or half-day trips. The price will depend on your route and the number of people to board, but it should only cost you about twenty bucks a day. Some tuk-tuk drivers speak English well, and will act as a guide for a day.
After an expedition in a rickety tuk-tuk, we arrived to the Poeuys Rural School, located in Tnol Trong Village, in the poorest area of Siem Reap town. The school, opened in February 2010 by the principal Poeuy, who takes in vulnerable children in the area and provides them with a basic education: English classes, computer classes and artistic workshops.
During ten unforgettable days, we taught English to two hundred impoverished children and got to know them with lots of play time. In exchange, they taught us a beautiful life lesson that changed us as humans and that has no price. Here is our day-to-day experience.
After travelling across a long, red, clay road in the countryside of Siem Reap, we finally arrived at Poeuy’s Rural School. Here, a hundred smiling faces were patiently waiting for us – an image that I will never forget. The young students don’t have much but they attend the free school to enhance their quality of life through learning English. The school is a place of community spirit where hundreds of beautiful, smiling souls come together to live, learn and share in the pursuit of education and happiness.
Sadly breaking a cycle of poverty like this is not an easy task but education is a powerful tool in paving their way out! Cambodia is a country largely dependent on tourism and for a career within the tourism industry, English is essential. A high-quality education enables children to develop essential reading, writing and speaking skills needed to make positive changes in their lives and break free from poverty.
Poeuy showed us around the school and we met the other volunteers and spent time observing what we would be doing in the coming days. I was feeling a bit nervous in the classroom, with all the kids around, staring at us and expecting us to teach them something. The children already have text books, so the main challenge for us was to find a creative and fun way to teach.
In the afternoon, we went to the floating village, nearby the school. It sounded very exciting and, in our mind, we expected something like the floating markets in other Asian countries: beautiful, peaceful and at the same time, full of life. We jumped in a tuk tuk (again) and bought our tickets. Tickets were about twenty dollars per person on a private boat for a tour of the village and the Tonle Sap Lake.
This village was impressive in more than one way. Impressive to see these houses on stilts rise six or seven meters above our heads, like real bamboo skyscrapers.
Impressive to know that, at the height of the monsoon, the level of the lake goes from its current 1 meter to 9 meters.
Along the way, we got to see the locals fishing next to a stretch of rice fields. The locals were just going about their daily lives, fishing and swimming. Since we’re in the dry season, the water level was fairly low and the water is muddy orange in colour. People living in the houses didn’t smile or wave at us, the seemed extremely sad and poverty sticken. After passing the houses, we saw the floating forest and went towards Tonle Sap lake. There is an option to purchase tickets for smaller kayak type boats to go into the forest for five dollars per person, but we chose not to. There are a few floating restaurants on the lake, perfect to take a break and watch the sunset on the lake. Food prices were quite cheap but slightly higher than those in town. We only had drinks. The entire boat ride took approximately two hours. An experience, an eye opener and something you will be glad you have done, but probably won’t do again.
Today is mission lice treatment! Yuck! Makes you cringe and scratch your head but it is a HUGE problem in developing countries, and even in Australia in areas where there are lots of kids. Our team thought we might do something a little bit different than teaching English today, so we got our gloves on (well some of us) and treated the entire school which consisted of about 100 kids. We could literally see the lice taking cover and jumping out of the kids’ head (and probably onto ours). The kids had an absolute ball and to them, it was like we were pampering them, we even had random people turn up, wanting their heads treated as the word got around that we were treating. Sadly, we had to turn them down, but for most of the kids and even the teachers, an itch free night was ahead of them. We spared no effort, because with the thick hair of the children, the operation wasn’t easy! Thank you so much for the team at Priceline for supplying us with the treatment shampoo to make this happen.
After dealing with bugs all morning, we had bugs on the brain so we thought it was time for us to experience some rare Cambodian food. We made our way to the Bugs Café where we all sat down to read the menu (with a bit of fear). We thought a discovery platter was the way for us to experience every single bug on the menu. And with that we all made the promise to try everything on the platter. The Bugs Café is a restaurant specialising in insect tapas. Ensure you try the very tasty scorpion salad, the ant spring rolls and the tarantula samosas. An incredible and unique experience. If you do want to indulge in insects, we definitely think this is the best cafe to try. Fun fact: insects are super high in protein and low in calories. As high in protein as beef, pork or chicken. Most grasshoppers or insects have a crunchy nutty taste. I was super nervous at first, but I surprised myself crunching away at the weirdness. We all ate most things and the platter actually tasted…quite good! We really recommend this cafe for a unique dining experience!
Today we got up early and made our way to the temples of Angkor! The site is huge, and it is impossible to do everything on a day because several kilometers separate some temples from each other.
We started with Angkor Wat, one of the best known temples, if not the best known. We enter in and there the magic unfolded. Despite the number of tourists present, we could still find small quiet places to stroll and observe the various sculptures and wall frescoes. The level of detail and the gigantism of the temple was impressive!
There is a quiet corner to listen to the sounds around and observe this “monster” in more detail. Monks walk around, people meditate. It is not the usual temple ruin, as this one was never abandoned. Go in with an open mind, not expecting much. It will turn your world upside down. There is a massive connection to the divine, the spiritual world in this temple.
You will need at least three to four hours to appreciate the architecture and carvings of the temple. If you can have an early start, definitely do as you have to go to the ticket office beforehand to purchase tickets. I would definitely recommend you take a professional guide. It is so much more interesting to know the history and the how the carvings came about. They are very strict with dress code: no shorts or exposed skin.
After climbing and descending the many steps of the temples, we are pretty tired… But we still found the energy to go back to the school for a special operation. Being a Dental Nurse by trade, I know that oral health care is an indicator of a body’s overall health. Oral hygiene is one of the most neglected areas of a child’s health. In the region, the situation is complex, that’s why we decided to contact Colgate, and get twenty boxes of Dental Hygiene kits which included floss, a tooth brush and tooth paste. Our mission? Promoting dental care by singing songs and teaching the kids how to brush their teeth. We even encouraged the principal Poeuy to make tooth brushing part of the everyday student’s routine! Dental care is a consistent reason for children to miss school, but hopefully with the proper education we give, this will be reduced. Our focus was not only on tooth brushing, but also on proper diet, so we got our children to draw with us and watch some YouTube clips on healthy eating habits. We would like to say a special thankyou to Colgate for supplying us with the tools for helping us to fight the war on cavities!
Like every kids on the planet, Cambodians like colours, playing with their imagination and having fun! So, with the help of Crayola, we decided to make the children draw. Seeing our students’ imagination running wild with freedom to express themselves was so pure. They were all drawing pictures of their most prized possessions and their family. One little boy drew a picture of Lee and I, and it filled me with pure joy. During our journey in Cambodia, we not only taught English, we just shared what we wanted to share with the kids. They were so observant, serious and willing to learn more and more every day. In a nutshell, perfect students!
After our creative morning, we visited the Ta Prohm temple. This temple is located a few minutes by tuk-tuk from Angkor Wat. Ta Prohm has been used several times in the film Lara Croft-Tomb Raider, shot in the early 2000s. Many scenes of jungle and temples were filmed here.
This temple attracts many tourists who came to visit the temples in groups. Choose the beginning or the end of the day to enjoy the place in relative tranquility. We were lucky because there were not many people during our visit. We were able to take our time and enjoy the beautiful light of the site.
Here two colours dominate: the intense green of the jungle with the brown of the roots or walls of the Ta Prohm temple. We can then play explorers in this vast site. We lend ourselves to the game of photos in the middle of the ruins.
Ta Prohm is one of the many temples in Angkor. It was built in the late 12th and early 13th centuries. It is located about one kilometer east of Angkor Thom, on the southern edge of East Baray. Unlike most temples in Angkor, the Ta Prohm has been left in the same conditions since its discovery. This obviously attracts travellers and tourists from all over the world and makes it one of the most popular temples in Angkor. UNESCO inscribed Ta Prohm on the World Heritage List in 1992. This brings along a mystic feeling and makes the temple different and unique amongst the others.
This morning, I had an idea: why not launch a singing and dancing class at the school? And that we did and the kids loved it. We just spent the morning teaching songs to each other, playing, dancing (and being silly) In two words: enjoying life!
After our dancing session, we headed the War Remnant Museum, an outdoor museum, on a former minefield. This museum provides a better understanding of the Cambodian civil war and the abominable king of the Khmer Rouge.
The guides are people who have lived through this war and this really brings a benefit to the visit. They gave us alot of info regarding the war and landmines. Many of the equipment and tanks used were soviet and China during the war: a Russian tanks and helicopter, artillery, reproduction of minefields… Entry was five dollars, and assistance by a guide is free (tips are welcome). The visit is really worth it. Plus, the museum gives most of the money to local children to help them learn English and there is a classroom in the museum.
The end of our stay is coming soon… Before the last day, we taught English to the children in a few different ways. We all went from classroom to classroom and got involved in any way we could, some classes were just repeating certain words that started with a certain letter over and over again, others classes were simply reading very simple books to the children and my favourite class was playing hangman on the blackboard and other games.
We then got the kids outside and played some volleyball and soccer. A bit of Australia in Cambodia! One of the main volunteers was leaving today, so we also did a farewell to him and got to spoil our students with some fizzy drink.
In the afternoon, we went to the Angkor National Museum. The museum consists of several galleries, spread over two floors. It traces the history of Khmer civilisation and its cultural heritage in eight galleries. It is full of precious objects, witnesses of the wealth of local art. There is a very beautiful unique collections of Khmer art objects. Don’t miss the magnificent gallery of 1,000 Buddhas. The most beautiful sculptures of the site of Angkor are exposed and distributed in the galleries of the museum. It consists of 2000 m² of exhibition! It will take you at least three hours to fully appreciate it. A must-see place after or before the discovery of the Angkor site. However, if statues are not your thing, don’t waste your time here!
Party time! Our last day was a special one because it was time to say goodbye to everyone and do something special for the kids, so we decided to have a party. We danced, played duck duck goose, tug of war and soccer, of course! We ended the day doing arm wrestles and just enjoying the last minutes we had with our students.
This experience in Cambodia was just amazing. I feel that a small change was necessary in my life, I needed something new, to travel, to live an experience strong in emotion… Cambodia offered me all of that in seven days (two days travelling). This country and these beautiful people are very different from what I knew. Although I traveled a lot, I sometimes doubted myself. But all these little fears quickly flew after a few days: big smiles, tasty food, wonderful landscapes.
The history of Cambodia leaves no one indifferent. From the times of the temples of Angkor to the regime of Khmer Rouge, there are the high and the low, still present in the country. A lot of contrast, in such a rich culture.
I will always remember my first visit at the school. Always. Their smiles, their thirst for learning, their enthusiasm. It’s a real pleasure to spend the day with these children! Curious, they know that learning English is essential for their future. I could have watched them play and laugh for hours. The priority of the project is to protect these children, give them an education and a healthy and fulfilled life. In a few days we have not changed their world, but we did our best with the time we had. Their smiles, their laughs and their “thank you” are the best of rewards.
I will never forget the good times spent with the other volunteers. The atmosphere was so friendly, it makes you feel like you are part of a small family.
When I returned to Australia, something had changed. I had learned a lot in a short time. Again a perspective shift and I see the world differently. This experience was much better than just a tourist trip. I miss the kids, but I get to hear from them. It’s hard to be so far away from them, not thinking about it and having to focus on instead!
I never get tired of rehashing all these memories, and tell stories of my journey and showing photos to my family and friends. I met many so many people highly committed to their mission. And it was beautiful. Travelling can be a life changing experience, no matter where you come from or who you are or where you go. But volunteering changes you as a person, forever.