Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Impressions of Cambodia

Most of our time in Cambodia was time spent in conjunction with my job. We traveled from Siem Reap down to Balang to visit our first orphan home that receives meals from Stop Hunger Now.  Over the next 3 days we traveled down to Phnom Penh, stopping at different orphan homes along the way in Pursat, Kampong Chnang, and Tumnup Island.  Each of the homes were really interesting, having some great sustainable practices such as growing gardens and raising animals. They also re-used our meal bags and boxes in very creative ways which was awesome to see. Overall it was a really great experience, traveling through the countryside and getting to spend time with people that are living day to day life there. It's a completely different scene (as you could imagine) to what tourists normally see in Siem Reap, Phnom Penh, or at the beach towns on the coast.

When we arrived in Phnom Penh we saw our partners headquarters office and then they took us to a museum, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. The museum was actually an old high school that was turned in to a torture facility during the Khmer Rouge.  I think this was one of the most important stops we made in Cambodia. As mentioned, you can go all through Cambodia the tourist way and never understand the country. Now I don't feel like I realllly know the country (I would need way more than 2 weeks to be able to say that) but I do feel like I know it better than most.  As a child, I was never taught about the Khmer Rouge, and if you're like me, and had never heard about it until now, I highly suggest you Google it. It was a very horrific time in our recent history, key word being recent. The Khmer Rouge happened from 1975 until 1979, however the government party responsible didn't dissolve until 1999.  Some say it was around until the early 2000's in the remote places of Cambodia. During those 4 years an estimated 2,000,000 Cambodians, a quarter of the country, were killed.  And just at the facility we we saw, it was estimated 20,000 were tortured and killed.

The museum we visited was the site of S-21, one of 150 execution centers in the country. The museum isn't like you're normal American museum, it wasn't filled with facts and figures, it was almost 100% imagery.  I've never in my life felt such bad energy. I walked in to one of the rooms of the school and instantly felt like the happiness was being sucked from me. My heart sank. My eyes welled up. It was the strangest, saddest feeling I've ever had. It is absolutely mind blowing that something that horrific happened in our recent past.  Even more mind blowing is that no one really did anything about it - no one seemed to care. Cambodia was eventually saved from the Khmer Rouge by the Vietnamese but it wasn't out of "this is bad we should stop it", it was more out of the fact that the Khmer Rouge was trying to take over Vietnam as well so they decided to put the kibosh on it all. I don't think I'll ever forget that day at that museum. I started to understand the people of Cambodia a bit more - and understood their recent struggle and why they are going through what they are today.

There was something odd about the people of Cambodia. They were wonderful, sweet, and a joy to be around, but it was a strange because people treated us as superior.  I rarely received eye contact from people, and a lot of people lowered their heads in your presence. We also noticed that the government and officials were corrupt and easily bribed. It was all about who you know and who you can pay off, which I think is the case everywhere but here, it was extreme. At one point while driving through Phnom Penh we were stopped for no reason...when our driver (who was American) started speaking in Khmer, he let us go.  Our guide told us that it happens all the time, and basically all they're looking for is people to give them money to go away. Police and teachers are paid as much as factory workers so they themselves become corrupt just to get by.  So strange. However, after visiting that museum, I started to understand why. The people were forced in to labor, the educated were killed, they were brain washed in to thinking the Khmer Rouge was improving the country and there was no one could stand up to them. Horrifying. The children we had met in the orphan homes were so shy. They were malnourished (like the 14 year old girl in my picture, left), doing bad in school, and we were told that school is just not a priority for people in Cambodia - surviving is. Such a different way of life...

After the museum we went down south to Kep City to visit another partner. This partner...oh my...beyond amazing! We visited the Salesion Don Bosco Technical Schools in Phnom Penh, Kep City, and Sihanoukville. The schools are technical colleges for kids from Cambodia. They have programs ranging from electricity to cooking to welding. Each of the classes are taught by previous students or volunteers that come from around the world (if you're looking for a place to retire and pass on wisdom, do it here).  The students were all SO impressive! We were shown around by many of the kids who used to go to that school and now are department heads. The people we met were so welcoming and kind. They let us stay there, fed us, and we even got to see their first day of school celebration where they had cultural dance and singing performances! It was so amazing and the campus was absolutely beautiful! It was right on the water with the mountains behind it...stunning. They have such great dreams of turning the program in to something that changes the country. They want to make everything sustainable and green, they try to grow their own food and use solar energy. It was fantastic!!

On one of the days in Kep, they took us to the caves. The caves were a place that some Cambodians came to flee from the Khmer Rouge back in the seventies. There were all kinds of crevices and caves to hide in. Now it's a Buddhist temple, where people come to worship. It was a bumpy ride past homes and rice fields and we even had a few kids jump on to our truck and ride with us up to the caves. When we got their, the kids assumed their position and became our guides for the trip. "The throat of the dragon...mind your head!" they would say as they pointed to the different rock formations. It was the cutest thing ever! They had learned just enough English phrases to become tour guides and get a few extra bucks for their families.  It was a bummer that they weren't in school though...

After the trip to the caves we went to one of the teachers childhood homes in the rice fields. The drive was absolutely gorgeous. There's something about those rice fields up against the blue sky. I've never seen anything that green. Gorgeous. We arrived at their home and they had an adorable set-up for us of fruit and coconut to drink. We sat and talked to the student who grew up there, Sehya, about his life and how he used to walk about 5kms to school each day and how he has like 10 brothers and sisters. He said that the girls couldn't go to school because it was too dangerous for them to walk that far. There is still a big fear of the girls getting raped on their way to school...which I knew was an issue in some places around the world but it was different to hear about it happening first hand.  He said that when he was a child, he decided he wanted to be an electrician so that he could bring electricity to his home. So he got a scholarship (like most students there have) to go to the Don Bosco Technical School and studied electricity. He is now the head of their department and though he hasn't been able to bring electricity to his home yet (he said it was much harder to do than he had hoped), he has been able to bring water and a toilet to their home. So inspiring.

I think that my final impression of Cambodia is that the country is corrupt and suppressed...yet filled with hope. The people we met along the way were so amazing. They were doing all they could to empower the children of Cambodia to make a difference in the world. They knew that the adults were a bit broken, and the government is still quite corrupt, so the children were the only way to really turn things around. We met so many people that had dedicated their lives to empowering these children. It was beyond inspiring. I'm so glad that we are working there.  Though it is a difficult place to be, it is the right place to be. And I cannot wait to go back.

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