In December 2016, our grade travelled to Phnom Penh Cambodia for our annual school trip. It was truly a learning experience outside the classroom that allowed me to put global issues in perspective.
This was actually my second time travelling to Cambodia – the first time was not long ago in March when I travelled to Siem Reap with my family. We were going for vacation and mainly to visit Angkor Wat. But this time, I learned so much more about the Cambodia’s history and the situation of the lives of the its people.
We landed in Phnom Penh on Sunday afternoon, went to have lunch at a restaurant, and drove to the Russian market. When we were driving through the city, I noticed that the streets were very busy but they were not very well-built – at least comparing to the large city capitals I’ve been to. There was not really a traffic system in place except that there were two sides of the road. I started to question the work of the government but I knew that Cambodia was lacking in resources and money. The government may be prioritizing other issues because the traffic systems somewhat works for the people. One thing that surprised me the most in the city was western influence in the country. Just walking around, I saw that some of the buildings and architecture had a certain western influence in it, this is because Cambodia was a French colony, which has its influence on Cambodian culture. It was especially evident in the Royal Palace that we visited in Phnom Penh.
As to the history of Cambodia, before the trip, our advisories were each assigned an area for research about the Cambodian Genocide. Our advisory was responsible for international response – information about how other countries responded to the genocide during the time. I found out that Cambodia actually isolated their country from foreign aid because the Khmer Rouge were trying to eliminate western influences within the country. I didn’t feel the emotional response as much while I was researching about the genocide until I got to the genocide museum and the killings fields in Phnom Penh. Back to the trip, on the second day, we visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S21) in the city and we learnt about the cruel Khmer Rouge regime and how it caused millions of innocent lives to be taken away. I saw the rows of prison cells that were built in the former school building and the chains, torture instruments that were scattered around the building.
What emotionally provoked me the most were the hundreds of mugshots displayed in the rooms and the fact that this genocide only happened 40 years ago. The mugshots were stuck on whiteboards in rows and when I walked up and looked closely I could tell they were individual people. But when I took a step back, I was overwhelmed that they all looked the same. Since everybody in the photos had the same uniform hairstyle, and even same expression – that they were in fear. The thought these victims were wiped out of existence and this mass-slaughter only happened 40 years ago, it just hits me that humanity can be so cruel and unforgiving.
After going to the genocide museum and the killings fields, I developed a deeper understanding on the historical context and how the lasting effects from the genocide are still evidently present in the country today. In order to process our thoughts after visiting these places, we went to an NGO called Ragamuffin, which is an organization that provides art therapy for the locals in Phnom Penh. We received a session on how to cope with our feelings and thoughts on the genocide, which inspired me to research about other genocides and their lasting effects on modern society. Another NGO we visited the next day supports kids after school in finding a hobby – break dancing, and especially the arts so the kids would learn a way to express themselves. Other than these they offer other education like English and Maths. I understood that there are people taking action and helping the less fortunate, and really anyone can do something to help no matter on small scale or large scale.
Bringing the historical context in place, we went to Kampong Chang – a province just outside of the city to volunteer at an NGO called the BSDA (Buddhism for Social Development Action). My group was assigned with farming tasks – to help them move the fertile soil into individual wheel barrels that acted as the base for lime tree plants. This would help the organization’s restaurant to become self-sufficient with limes as limes are practically used in every Cambodian dish. The restaurant provides an opportunity for the kids staying with BSDA to practice their cooking skills, serving skills, and language skills. After the trees are planted, some of the kids with the organization can even learn the skill of farming. I have done farming before when our grade went to Yangshuo in China for our 8th grade trip but this time, it made me realize how important man labor is in a country that doesn’t have enough resources to make farming or other work easier.
We did a total 30 hours of service in the end and on our last day, we got to dance and meet some of the little kids staying with BSDA. They took us around in a temple and then some of the students there performed traditional Cambodian dances for us. It was an interesting performance because I didn’t get to see it last time I was there and especially performed by students in training. We ended the day where we danced with the kids and gave them sandwiches and drinks. I was very happy to see them smile which made me understand – people can be satisfied and happy with what they want. Even though they were less fortunate than us, they were still so happy. It made me appreciate for everything I have in my life and understand even if you can’t have everything you want, you have the choice to be happy or sad about it.
Visiting Cambodia made me realized the hardships that people have to go through not just in Cambodia but all around the world. It was truly an experience for me to understand the lasting effects of historical events on a country and its people, and also able to put myself in other’s people’s situation and think of things in another perspective.