Near the beginning of December, my class and I traveled to Cambodia, beginning in the capital Phnom Penh. Later we went into Cambodia’s sixth largest city, the urban district of Kampong Cham.
We began our journey in Cambodia in the national capital, Phnom Penh. After a day of travel and orientation, we visited two historical sites. First was S-21, which was a school before Pol Pot’s regime and once it began it was converted into a prison. We walked through cramped cells just barely a square-meter each and countless picture of those held in those cells. After that experience, we headed to one of the sites of the infamous “Killing Fields”. The site we visited was the Choeung Ek site. We took and audio tour of the entire field, the tour began with a pre-word mentioning that some scraps of cloth and bone fragments of the victims still scattered about. As the walk around progressed I saw many different mass burial sites and a tree with bracelets pinned onto it in memorial to the infants whose heads were dashed against the tree.
With the dark and quite recent history context established, my group moved on looking into the NGOs helping to help Cambodia get past its tyrannical rule of Pol Pot. We visited Tiny Toones Breakdance Center, which works on helping with children’s education with a focus on the performing and visual arts. We learned about the roots of how it began and were treated to a performance from some of the students learning to breakdance there. Another NGO we went to before beginning our service project was the Ragamuffin House (Project). The man there began with introducing himself and what ragamuffin is and the goals of it for the children attending the program. Ragamuffin Project is an arts program with a focus of “arts therapy” for children growing up in tough environments. We then drew and wrote short poems and shared them if we chose to.
We left Phnom Penh and headed toward Kampong Cham for our community work. We took a pit stop about halfway in Skuon where we were “educated” about local delicacies such as fried grasshoppers and fried tarantulas. The following day we began on our service project with The Buddhism for Social Development Action (BSDA) NGO to help lay bricks for a classroom and plaster the inside of a wall in a storage shed. We worked for two days on the walls, and we were able to finish plastering the storage shed and laying bricks for half of the classroom and plastering a bit of that wall. The end of the two days of hard work ended with a performance from the kids at the center and later handed out dinner for them and partied with them for a short time before leaving Cambodia back to Hong Kong.
Reflecting on the trip today, I experienced a lot of things that I previously never would have thought I would have the incentive to do myself, and experiencing it with friends helped a lot with mediating the plethora of information I was taking in. The beginning of the trip with the two historical sites I am able to remember in somewhat vivid detail. The atmosphere of S-21 was quiet with constant whisperings between friends and other tourists commenting on the terrible realities these prisoners had to live through and experience. There was this sort of subtle disconnection between myself and the prisoners, subconsciously thinking that I had absolutely no idea just how terrible, and uncomfortable it was for the prisoners. What reality I had known and trusted a polar opposite of what harsh realities of the prisoners. At the infamous Killing Fields there was little chatter, only at the entrance with the small ice cream and snack stands. As you progressed through the fields it became quieter, everyone had a similar experience of the reality of what happened resting into them. The atmosphere is an eerie quietness, a strange sort of drawn out moment of a fog clearing. A strange sense of peacefulness was subconsciously wading through everybody’s thoughts.
After the sad day of learning about Cambodia’s tough history, and establishing the context. A lot of my group members, and myself, were happy to see what Cambodia had in stock for the future and how local Cambodian were aiding their community. All of the NGOs we visited had to do with helping children and/or young adults. All were some sort of education which is important for developing countries, since children are the future of any country / world. Tiny Toones was arguably the most interesting of the NGOs we visited. I particularly liked it because it was beginning to teach more core-element subjects like english, math, etc. It had a clear focus towards dance and expression through the arts. You could tell the kids and young adults there were having a lot of fun with learning breakdancing and that feeling of happiness resonated throughout the room and created a very friendly and fun atmosphere. Ragamuffin, while being a shorter visit was just as hopeful. The atmosphere was much more apparent in the brightly sun-lit room. The man running the program (whose name still eludes me), was a soft spoken, kind man that spoke with conviction with his students in seemingly higher regard as himself. He certainly cared greatly and had fun with his job helping young children express themselves through art and literature. While drawing and writing poems definitely wasn’t my forte, I still was easily able to see how it could children who are possibly growing up in difficult environments release stress and express themselves freely without harsh opinions or negative judgement.
We left Phnom Penh and travelled five hours to a more slightly more rural area, Kampong Cham. We took a stop about halfway along the trip to test out an infamous local delicacy, fried tarantulas. Going into it, I thought it would be no problem since they’re fried, it would just look like fried chicken in the shape of a spider. To my dismay, there was no breading on the tarantulas are they were fried raw, with no seasoning or additions, just boiling oil + tarantula. Reluctantly I still tried it to preserve my self image of my masculinity. Graham thankfully took the abdomen, the large backside where the webs shoot out of, according to his records it “popped” in his mouth which certainly put me at ease eating the rest of it. The legs were not too tough, the body had much weirder and less crunch texture. Flavor wise it was pretty bland and on the “kind of bad” range of taste. We then went to the BSDA NGOs we would be helping. I was glad I had group members I was comfortable with because I’d be working with them for the next two days.
For the first day I began with plastering walls of a storage room. This was hard. I gradually began getting better at it though. The other half of the day I placed bricks to form a wall for a schoolhouse, which was a LOT easier than plastering. For the entire time we worked there, the kids that attended the center would be present, with the occasional greeting and wave from the younger kids. The ambience was quiet, which is how I usually like it. Some kids were playing instruments similar to xylophones and table-guitars. The second day we were visited by one of Richards friends who was a Buddhist monk working with BSDA, I didn’t exchange many words with him besides speaking with him in a circle with friends, mostly just listening myself. One thing that made me very happy about meeting the monk is that he was very soft-spoken, and with a peaceful and quiet vibe, which is what I imagined most Buddhist monks to be like. It’s always nice to not have my perceptions of certain things or people crushed. I was quite smug with myself with how effective my sub-group of the guys in the group worked. We worked quite fast and we exceeded my expectations as to what I thought we would get done in the two days. We finished an entire half of a schoolhouse, and a fair bit of the plastering done in the storage room. As a thanks, we had a traditional Cambodian dance performance, it was interesting and fun, I liked the pat with the little boys as the monkeys. We then partied with them. I did not dance.
My most memorable moment from my trip in Cambodia, was when one time after dinner, we were waiting for our vans to arrive to bring us to the hotel we were staying at, we were approached by a child (keep in mind just ONE child at this time) with a coat hanger chock full of bracelets. At first we just ignored him telling him we didn’t want any bracelets. A short time later his friend walks up and breaks up the speaking-circle my friends and I were in, there was a short pause, and the kid lands a solid dab. At least three of us, including myself whip out our wallet to buy some bracelets. I bought 6 or 7 bracelets for 2 dollars (usd) as the kid I’m buying them off of walks with me across the street. I give the child the 2 dollars as agreed and i get my bracelets, I look up and i see maybe a total of 4 or 5 kids scurrying amongst our group walking toward our vans. We walk past a park and another 4 or 5 kids join the group. We now have about 1.5 children per person in the group. I buy and entire hanger of bracelets for what I think was 10 dollars and split it with my friend. Somehow, from end to finish of the walk, I had lost almost half of my half a hanger from the kids asking for some of the bracelets back, it was a classic swindle I fell for. One of the kids asked for ONE of them backhand he straight up took all he could finesse off me. This was really fun for me and a highlight for me because of how genuine it was. The unplanned nature of the kids interacting with us that really embedded in my memory.
Our trip ended with a visit to the market, where we were given a chance to purchase souvenirs for our families. Most of us bought gag gifts such as fake Rolex watches and fake Gucci flip flops. The negotiations between myself and the shopkeepers were aggressive with the prices, and friendly person to person interactions. I bought an all-gold Rolex, fake Gucci flip flops, and a butterfly knife comb so I could show off to my friends my skills. We left after that and said goodbye to Cambodia.