Sunday, February 12, 2012

Notes from Campuchia, The Kingdom of Wonders Part 1

If you've ever been to Korea or talked to someone living here during the winter time, then you know it gets really cold. Sometimes it's all we talk about because sometimes it's all we can think about. Last winter, I found myself escaping to Thailand and volunteered at an orphanage in Chiang Mai. It was an extremely special experience for me and so, this year, I thought I'd do something similar- volunteer to teach English in a rural village of Cambodia with About Asia Schools.

While I once again escaped Korea's torturous winter for a couple weeks, fell in love with a new culture and it's people, made a very dear volunteer friend, and met some of the most beautiful children of the world, the experiences were anything but alike.

For starters, in Thailand I was staying in a volunteer house complete with a shower, flushing toilet, bed, kitchen, and a whole lot of guidance. In Cambodia, myself and Christine, my partner volunteer, stayed with a local family in the tiny village of Prey Chuk. Here we bathed with buckets of water, used a non-flushing squatter toilet, and slept on the ground underneath giant mosquito nets. One night a rat passed through out room, for a couple days a mouse sat at the bottom of out showering pool, we once said goodnight to a giant 2" beatle, we didn't have access to the Internet/a computer, and our only contact with a modern day store was during the weekends when we went into Siem Reap. In terms of western commodities, we were "roughing it."

Still, I wouldn't change a thing. It was perfect in every way. Here, I share with you notes from my nightly journal entries. They are more detailed than those from Thailand, but in a tiny village, I found myself with plenty of time to do so. I also found myself in the midst of a culture operating at a pace that promotes observation, absorption and reflection.Basically journalling heaven.


12/21- Flight to Guangzhou, China
"I'm going into this adventure with the new understanding that with the majority of problems, there is a window of time in that if you just remain cool, calm and collected, things just work themselves out."

12/22- Guangzhou, China
"I'm blindly shuffled off to a hotel (from the Guangzhou Airport during a 23.5 hour layover). With a language barrier, I follow airport employees whom deliver me and 5 others to an old van. We pile in, myself in the furthest back seat. It's dark, cramped, and the windows quickly steam up creating a misty coat almost too thick to see the giant raindrops trickling down the glass from the outside. 'Where am I?' I ask myself. I wipe off the moisture from a part of the window and try to catch a glimpse of what is China. I spot people on bicycles using umbrellas. Strange."

"At the hotel, a lady behind the front desk tells me, 'You share a room with her (and points to a the girl behind me in line).' I look back and then to the lady and, while the girl looks very non-sketch, ask for my own room. I'm told it's $100 as opposed to free if I do not share. Again, I think, 'What the heck, where am I?' 'On what planet is it okay to force two strangers into a hotel room?'

I decide to just go with it. A free hotel is a free hotel. Of course, I should probably ask the girl how she feels about being roomies. Apparently I'm also non-sketch looking and she's okay with it. 'Sshe' winds up being a girl named Margo from South Africa, also a teacher in South Korea heading for Cambodia. Together, we eat Chinese food, take an elevator up Canton Tower, take a stroll through Yuexiu Park, master the subway system, and find our way to the airport come time to say goodbye to China. I guess strangers are only strangers for as long as you allow them to be. We wind up in adjacent seats on the flight to Cambodia."

First meal in China
Canton Tower in Guangzhou 

12/22~ In Cambodia

"I feel empowered and unique being part of all this- contributing who I am and what I've done. Here in this little hostel haven are people from all walks of life. I meet two girls from England volunteering in a village nearby mine. They are just back in Siem Reap and staying at Sweet Dreams Guest House for the weekend. They provide lots of insight as to what to expect, something I'm certainly lacking at the moment. They decide they will bike to Prey Chuk (my village) from Sasasadom (their village) during one of the upcoming days for a visit."

Sweet Home Guest House- Family run and the volunteer base for About Asia Schools

12/23-Siem Reap and Prey Chuk, Cambodia

"We (Christine, my partner in volunteering; myself; and Tola, the project coordinator of AboutAsia) arrive at our village this afternoon via tuk-tuk. I had tried googling it prior to coming, but found very little. Now I know why. It's tiny and very, very, very rural- cows passing on the street, everyone knows everyone, no refrigerators, no running water."


"We meet Grandma, the head of our host family and at about 5', with the classic shaven head of a nun (or monk?), and a kind, toothless smile, is quite possible the sweetest thing known to earth. Also staying in the home is her granddaughter, great grandson, and grandson in law. About 20 other relatives and neighbors come and go at different times throughout the day. The great grandson is about 1 years old, pantless, and very much fond of chasing the families mother chicken and 15 little chicks, which roam free across the dirt driveway and neighbors front yards. I can already tell that he will be a major source of entertainment in the weeks to come."

The grandson of the host family and a neighborhood gal

The fam


"I wake up at about 5am with the sounding of the neighborhood roosters. Eventually I figure out the portable stove and am able to make some instant coffee, which I enjoy on the balcony surrounded by butterflies and tiny birds. The air is cool this morning. I have a view of the road. It's a fairly busy street that cuts through village after village and continues on to Thailand. It would be a long trip, but just knowing that by the end I'd be in Thailand feels surreal. During the day, it still feels quaint as cattle and owners, kids on bikes, pedestians carryng market goods, dogs, pigs, and even chickens pass. By nightfall, it belongs to the motorized vehicles."

Christine in the morning. This is our little attic-like accommodation.  

The main road through the village

"I watch from above until I want to be a part of it all. Christine and I get on bikes and ride. Families are outside their houses and almost everyone shouts 'hello!' as we pass. The welcome is nice. Kids giggle as they practice their 'How are you?' and 'What is your name?'"

One of the many surrounding dirt roads

"At 1pm, without lesson plans and not really knowing what to expect, we head to school. We teach a beginner group followed by a more advanced beginner group for a total of three hours. Conditions are very difficult- it's really hot, I'm teaching with a partner volunteer and a Cambodian classroom teacher (partner teaching is always difficult while getting to know one another's teaching styles), we have very few materials, and the student's vocabulary base is a lot less developed than that of my students in Korea. By the end, I wish for heaps of patience, that's all."

Motor bike for three! Christine and I with the Cambodia teacher

Christine and I. Christine  and I were partnered to teach in the village. She's originally
from China, but grew up in Australia. She speaks a million different languages and
will soon be studying in Japan for a year. Will see her again :) 


"I can't sit still for long this morning, so I ask Christine to accompany me on a bike ride. We head out on a trail near out village's pagota, one we explored the day before, but in the opposite direction this time. It's a dirt road and people living in the scattered homes alongside are surprised when they see us pass. As the trail gets rougher and rougher, heaps of garbage and debree from the trees force us to stop.

With Christine behind, a lady carrying a baby approaches me, followed by a whole group of people. We communicate using charades, expressions and single words from the Khmer/English dictionary I'm borrowing from the classroom teacher. I try to translate the word 'cute' in reference to the baby, but it turns out the word does not exist in Kmer. I settle on 'pretty.' The lady jokes about giving her to me and I get a little nervous... She then calls her neighbor over, whom it turns out speaks quite a bit of English.

Translation dictionary= story of our lives, At the rice fields

At the age of 31, she is a teacher, unmarried (very uncommon at this age in Cambodia), paying for her brother to attend university, working the rice fields, and also caring for her sisters children. She jokes, "I have two babies and I'm single!" With one of the youngins, a girl about 3, attached to her hip, she invites and leads us to her property. The cool morning temperature is bidding it's farewell, as it's now about 10am. But the peaceful winds of the vast open fields trick us into thinking otherwise. She leads us on a tour and we pass rice patties, and watermelon and mint fields.

We head back to her house past mango and cocnut trees and find a relative of hers preparing palm sugar. We're given leaves to dunk and take a try. It's very tasty, proven as the young extracts glob after glob from the big metal bowl. Nearby, a dog nurses puppies, chickens run free, and colorful clothes hanging on clothes lines flap in the wind. We have to go to make it in time for Grandma's lunch, but we promise to return."

Fresh palm sugar


"We meet Lucy, the volunteer in Sasasadam, the neighboring village. Her and Kate, her partner volunteer, biked to us a few days ago. Kate has since left for home, so Christine and I thought we'd pay her a visit. The ride is along the the main road, but switches from feeling freeway-esk to village-esk every now and then. People are laboring in the yards and fields to the sides, but many still take the time to say 'hello.' The landscape is unfathomable and in fact, my words cannot do it justice. The sky is bright blue in contrast with the greens of the grass, palm trees, and various other tree species. I look out into the vast fields and try to decide where it is they end, but all I can spot are more and more trees getting smaller and smaller until they look like miniatures in a painting or some other scaled down piece of art.

In Sasasadam, we find Lucy at her home. A group of kids are hanging out on her balcony, coloring in workbooks she's given them. I love how low key it is. Students show up at their teachers house and it's perfectly normal. Eventually, we bid them a farewell and head off to the local market and pagota (it seems every village has one of each)."

Kids from Sasasadam Village, neighboring Prey Chuk

Sasasadam Market

"After classes, a girl slips me a red Chinese New Year envelope and says, "Not money, open!" It's a lovely picture she's drawn of me. She then asks if I'll play a game with her and motions for me to follow her outside the classroom. Christine, myself, her, and about 8 other students hang around the school and color for a bit. We then head home, but wind up stopping at the pagoda where the children lace Christine and my hair with pastel shades of flowers and insist on taking pictures. During our hour at the pagoda, I feel more free than I have since I've gotten here."

At the Prey Chuk Pagoda 

Boy and Cow at the Pagoda

She saw me photograph the boy and wanted hers done as well. 

"It feels absolutely wonderful stripping down to the necessities. One just doesn't need much the things the western world convinces us we do. I'm really happy living simply. It feels like me, like this is natural."


"I wake up this morning at about 5am. I look to one of the windows in our attic-like portion of the house and see little sign of light. Just four hours prior, I had gone outside to pee in the bushes. The only toilet, which is a non-flush squatter by the way, is in the families downstairs area and they were all asleep. Music is blaring from what seems to be a loud speaker in the neighbors tree or yard. The muffled, yet extremely loud Cambodian music fills the air and pierces my eardrums. 'This must be a nightmare,' I think. 'Or hell...' I hear Christine wrestling around and know she's thinking something similar.

After two hours of this torture, I finally get up, start boiling water and go downstairs to see what going on. The granddaughter, who is 21 years old, as if she knows exactly what I'm thinking, pulls out the Khmer/English dictionary and points to the word for wedding ceremony.

Here I am feeling horrible for cursing the awful sounds of what should be a pleasant ceremony and the granddaughter walks into the house and returns with a giant photo album with the faces of a man and a women whom I do not recognize plastered on the front. When I get a closer look I realize it's her! As opposed to the usual natural look, she's wearing lots of makeup and a traditional Cambodian wedding gown. Inside the album, the couple pose in various places and poses including in the upstairs area we are currently calling home. I count 12 different outfits, each similar, but different in color. I felt honored for her to share such a special occasion with me."

"We take a dirt road that leads up to another village. The ride is breathtaking, as usual. The wind travels up my sleeves, into my shirt, and across my skin giving me a sense of being one with my surroundings. Everywhere chickens, ducks, and turkeys and their babies roam.

We discover a new village tucked deep into the maze of rural dirt roads. People are surprised to see us. I get the feeling foreigners aren't exactly a common spectacle around here. They are curious, excited, and some even scared. One girl, probably the age of 3, literally took one look at me and started balling and running to her sister. We pass a school and cause a commotion. Students in the hundreds gather in the school yard, at open windows and the street chanting, 'hello, hello, hello.' They must be younger than our students, the youngest standing at just about 2', which combined with the blue and white school uniforms, might be the most adorable thing I've seen thus far."

1/28- Siem Reap, Cambodia

"People in the village seem to enjoy life more, as well as have a more positive attitude toward foreigners. Their culture, talents, and life are not being exploted for the sake a tourism and their own survival. As volunteers, our relationship with the locals is not one based on what one from take from the other. Instead, it's one of co-existence. We want to help them and, in return, they want to help us. And most importantly, we want to learn from and about one another.."

A Pagoda in Siem Reap on the off streets of Siem Reap 

Near the market in Siem Reap

"(At the War Museum) We always hear so much about the hunger, suffering at work camps, separation, illness and death from the perspective of the civilian, but not the government-backed soldier during the reign of the Khmer Rough. For me, our tour guide helped fill that void. A soldier at age 14, he experienced and lives to tell about extreme despair, including the death of a best friend, the loss of a leg, partial blindness, and multiple encounters with landmines and other explosives. He encourages us to touch shrapnel still lodged beneath his flesh."

The War Museum

I heard it about the killing fields down in phnom penh and it was true here as well- a sort of serene peacefulness accompanies horrific historical sites in Cambodia. It's uplifting.
--Whew, that's the end to part 1 of my notes from Campuchia. Part 2 coming soon.--

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