In previous years HKA have been running school trips into China, the trip to Cambodia was a much-welcomed change. Prior the actual trip, the grade 10 class studied the Khmer Rouge and the genocide that took place. The grade was divided into groups and each group focused on a specific aspect. I had heard a little about Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge outside of school, primarily from The Dark Tourist, by Dom Joly and having been to Siem Reap a few years before. This prior learning really helped me to understand what had happened in Cambodia, and why we were going to the killing fields and Tuol Sleng.
When we landed we met our guides and set off into Phnom Penh in some customised vans, the one I was decked out with a full padded orange and brown leather interior and could have been the best van I had ever been in, poor air conditioning however made it stuffy. We absconded the traffic and went to an extensive buffet restaurant for lunch and it was here that I saw the first sign that Cambodia had been under French rule, steamed snails and frogs legs, both quite stereotypical French foods. Cambodia is not unsimilar to many other South-east Asian countries in that motorbikes swarm all over the roads. After a luscious lunch of green mango and bread, we departed the restaurant and retired to our hotel.
The following day we set out exploring Phnom Penh, we started out with some light tourism and went to the Royal Palace where there were a wealth of photo opportunities. Finding temples and palaces rather dull, I wasn’t claiming to go back and stay a bit longer. Our next stop was Tuol Sleng or S-21 as it was known. Tuol Sleng had formerly been a school but turned into a prison under Pol Pot. Nowadays it is a museum depicting what happened in S-21. Some of the rooms were quite heavy, in particular, one which had a cabinet holding row upon row of human skulls. These skulls have holes or dents in the top of them indicated where they had been beaten. The most emotional exhibit was the pictures of the prisoners when they were first brought into Tuol Sleng and the pictures of bodies on the floor. In my mind, the victims weren’t just faceless beings but now actual people.
Walking around the quiet and peaceful fields that were the scene of brutal mass killings. The calm and informative voice over told the horrors that took place here, the tree where babies heads were smashed open and the pits where bodies were dumped. After this deep and in some cases traumatic experience we visited a local NGO that did art therapy through the arts. This was a good ending to the day as we expressed our feelings and thoughts about where we had just been.
Before driving the 3 hours to Kampong Cham, we stopped off at Tiny Toones Breakdance Centre, where we were treated to an inspirational performance of breakdancing skills, performed by tiny children. We were then invited to give it a try ourselves, and this was less impressive. During the drive to Kampong Cham, it was a chance for us to relax and listen to music.
We went to Kampong Cham to do our service learning, with the BSDA. We learned about all the good action the BSDA does for the local community and were split into groups to go and help them. My group’s task was to help plaster a classroom wall and lay the bricks for another. Building the wall for one classroom was important as previously the old makeshift wall, made from thin strips of wood, had been broken and class supplies stolen. Laying the bricks was easier than plastering the wall, for a start, there was a nice breeze coming through the wooden wall, compared to the stuffy room that we had to plaster. By the end of the 2 days, we had finished plastering the walls in one classroom and had bricked up and plastered one side of the other. This service learning really made me feel like I was contributing something to the community and helping the local children.
While this trip only lasted a week, I think we managed to do a bit of everything. We learned about the key Cambodian history and how it damaged this small nation. The service learning allowed us to help the local community, but also reflect as to how lucky we are living in Hong Kong.