I had always, since I was young, had Cambodia in my mind as a place I really wanted to see though I could never say why in particular! It turns out this instinct was correct and Cambodia really is the most amazing and beautiful country to visit!
For 2 out of my 3 weeks I spent in Cambodia I took on the role of volunteer, teacher and resident of Phnom Penh as opposed to that of a traveller and tourist, and as a result my experience of Cambodia was very different to the rest of my trip so far, so much the richer for being more in touch with the local people and culture.
As soon as I arrived in Cambodia off the riverboat from Vietnam you could see the differences with Chinese-inspired Vietnam in the architecture, the writing, the level of development and the ethnicity of the people, so much more distinct from Vietnam than I had realised. The first day and a half in Phnom Penh I stayed in tourist mode and tried to visit as many of the important places as possible , knowing that once my volunteering project started I wouldn't have time to fit anything like that in! Paulien and I, along with a guy from Peru and a guy from Ecuador who we made friends with, explored the riverside of the city, the outside of the royal palace and the emotionally exhausting Tuol Sleng and the Killing Fields.
Cambodia's recent history is so heart wrenching and sad that it is surprising that the people here can be as happy as you find them when you meet them. The genocide carried out by Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge regime in the late 1970's was brutal and devastating to the population and is something you can still feel that country trying to recover from.
The prison of Tuol Sleng was once a high school but was turned into S21, a prison where the regime cruelly tortured and imprisoned it's victims before they were sent to the killing fields to die. It was a sobering place to visit, very intense and emotional. From there we took a tuk tuk out to the killing fields outside the city and spent an hour and a half going round the fields, alone with our thoughts and an audio guide. The site where so many people were killed is now so peaceful and marked with a very moving memorial but it was still a hard afternoon and emotionally draining taking it all in.
I moved across to the volunteer house, my new home for the next 2 weeks on the Sunday night before orientation on Monday morning and got myself settled in. Orientation over the next 2 days was great as I met and got to know the other volunteers (mainly Aussies and Kiwis!), and we were given an introduction to the country, the language, culture and the city we would call home for the next 2 weeks. On the 2nd afternoon Kate, Kendall and I went to go and meet John who introduced us to PIO (People's Improvement Organisation) who run the school we would teach at and the following morning we were taken along to meet the kids and see our school for the first time. Our school was in Borei Keila, a deprived inner city area and was hidden away down a dirty side alley behind a market. The realisation then of the conditions we would be teaching in, the lack of resources like pens and paper, and how challenging the next 2 weeks would be really hit me then.
I chose to teach grade 1 where I had children ranging from the age of 6 to 14 whose English level was very very basic. My morning 9-11am class consisted of 24 kids while my afternoon class, 1-4.30, had up to 31 kids, and boy were they a handful! From our first day we were thrown in at the deep end and were teaching and managing our classroom on our own without any real guidance or suggestions about what the kids had already been taught or needed to learn next, we were just told to teach whatever we liked! Over the next 2 weeks I tried to cover various topics with them from introducing themselves and other people, family members and describing people, action words, and on our last day we talked about Christmas and I bought colouring pencils and paper for them to make Christmas cards! It was a real challenge for me, certainly a lot hard than I had ever thought, with my evenings and lunch breaks consumed with lesson planning and thinking of new games and songs to teach them, but the kids made it so worthwhile. They were a mischievous bunch, noisy, rambunctious, constantly wrestling and fighting with each other or heckling me to 'play game, teacher, play game', but they were also so full of personality, very affectionate and so happy. It was a wrench to say goodbye and leave them and I will miss them all.
After my teaching experience I launched myself back into traveller/ tourist mode and swiftly caught the overnight bus up to Siem Reap. In the middle weekend of my teaching myself and some of the other volunteers had headed to Sihanoukville on the coast to enjoy the picturesque beaches but other than that I hadn't done any more sightseeing for 2 weeks and I was anxious to see more of Cambodia. My 5 days in Siem Reap were absolutely incredible as myself and some of the other girls I had met through volunteering explored the temples of Angkor Wat and the many more that surround it. The sight of Angkor Wat at sunrise in all its glory will stay with me forever, as will the mysterious beauty of the ancient temples taken over by enormous tree roots and branches, recreating a vision of a long lost city in the jungle. Some definite highlights of my trip and that is not even mentioning the enchanting city of Siem Reap itself with its night markets, $4 full body massages, amazing cooking class, and delicious amok curry! The landmine museum we visited was also so incredibly moving and gave yet another sad twist in Cambodia's story.
Cambodia struck a chord with me and left a real impression on me which I am certain will last my whole life; from the terribly sad issues Cambodia still lives with today to the happy children I met and taught, the new friends I made volunteering, crazy tuk tuk rides, the breathtaking beauty of Angkor Wat and the yumminess of a banana pancake with chocolate from a street stall. Cambodia was really really incredible.