Volunteering Trip to Cambodia: Read before Packing!
- About this book
- Why volunteering?
- Why Cambodia?
- Arriving in Siem Reap
- Volunteering at Life and Hope Association
- Living at the PAGE boarding house
- Living at Cambodia Backpacker Guesthouse
- Charity vs. business
- Buddhist monks: nirvana vs. education
- Weather: are you thinking or sinking?
- Clothes: dress code – pajamas!
- Food: have you eaten rice?
- Health: hypoglycemia, meningitis or hysteric crisis?
- Festivals and celebrations
- Places of interest
- Traveling in the region
- Security: the country with 10 million land mines
- Politics: the price of development
- Where can you get funding for volunteering abroad?
1. About this book
Before going to Cambodia, I wanted to know about the country, its culture and volunteering as much as possible. I did, however, find that the quantity of relevant literature and information was rather limited. I watched a few documentaries about Angkor Wat and bought a couple of books, such as Cambodia (Culture Shock!) written by Peter North and A Record of Cambodia: The Land and Its People written by Daguan Zhou. The only other books that I could find were either travel guides or books about genocide, which was not really my primary interest.
Although I am neither a writer, nor a photographer, I thought that it would be quite nice to share my experience of Cambodia and volunteering with others. After returning from Cambodia, I published a series of articles in a newspaper of my home city in Lithuania and also made a couple of photo exhibitions and presentations. Then I started writing a book. In the past, I won many writing competitions, and some of my novels were published in a book. That was, however, mainly fiction written in my native language. This book is my first major writing project, and English is not my first language, therefore I apologize in advance for any inaccuracies and flaws.
Life in Cambodia is changing. Therefore things described in this book may not necessarily be exactly the same, when you will go there. Also you may find that your own experiences are different from the experiences that I had. It’s all natural. I think it’s always good to hear what other people or books have to say and then go and explore everything by yourself. Life is an endless personal journey, and a journey experienced by one person will never be the same like the one experienced by someone else. That’s the beauty of life and that’s what makes the sharing of our experiences even more meaningful!
2. Why volunteering?
As I have mentioned before, over the past few years, I have been involved in a number of voluntary activities. If I had to summarize my reasons for volunteering, I would say that I have been mainly motivated by an opportunity to contribute to something that I strongly believe in, spend my time in a meaningful way, learn new things, and also get some work experience.
This time, I decided to do some long-term volunteering, because I got tired of sitting at home and wasting my time with endless job applications. One would expect that with all qualifications and experience that I have, it should be easy to find a paid job, but unfortunately that’s not the case. It could have been because of economic recession and high unemployment, foreign citizenship, lack of work experience in the UK, non-British accent, narrow specialization, the domination of skills-based approach over field expertise, lack of self-esteem or some other reasons that I was not even aware of. Whatever the case, I was slowly coming to a conclusion that I should apply for some volunteering program.
As opportunities for volunteering in my city were rather limited, I decided to look for volunteering abroad. In this way, I could get more work experience, change the environment and also learn about the local culture. This option had, however, its own flaws and limitations, as by volunteering, not only you don’t get remunerated for your hard work, but also you may be required to pay costly program fees. I’m sure there are many people, who can afford it, otherwise such business would simply cease existing, but I don’t think that they are necessarily the ones, who are best equipped with the knowledge and skills needed to make an effective and long-lasting contribution or that such programs are best designed to provide that. Whatever the case, I felt that I had the knowledge and skills, but I had no money to pay. For me, it quite made sense that if I was not paid for my hard work, then at least I shouldn’t be expected to pay anyone either!
Luckily, there were more people, who were sharing similar views and even willing to give me a helping hand. While trying to find free volunteering opportunities, I finally came across the website of Omprakash Foundation: http://www.omprakash.org. Not only they had a reasonable list of NGOs that didn’t charge their volunteers, but also they were offering a number of grants to cover their basic expenses. That was exactly what I was looking for. I applied for the grant, and although my first application was initially rejected, I did my best to make all necessary improvements and submitted the application again. My determination eventually paid off, and in the beginning of October 2010, I was already on my way to Cambodia!
3. Why Cambodia?
From all NGOs listed on the website of Omprakash Foundation, I decided to contact Life and Hope Association (LHA). These are the main considerations that I have based my choice on:
- LHA looked like a strong organization, which was run by people, who truly believed in what they were doing, and which had a number of interesting and successful projects.
- Education had always been an important part of my life and a key stone to success. Therefore I felt very supportive of what LHA was doing.
- It was also quite related to my previous work experience, which meant that I would have an opportunity to use the skills that I already had.
- I don’t like cold climate, so I was looking forward to living in a country, where summer lasts all through the year.
- Also, from reading books and information on the Internet, I got an impression that it was a rather safe and cheap country. I knew that my budget would probably be rather limited and that I would need to stay in the country on my own, so these were important things to consider.
- The fact that Angkor Wat and other ancient temples were located just 7km from the office was another piece of good news. Working at an NGO and spending my free time learning about the local culture was exactly what I was looking for.
- Finally, I had always been interested in Buddhism, so working with Buddhist monks in a temple sounded like a life-time opportunity!
4. Arriving in Siem Reap
Although before going to Cambodia, I visited quite many countries, most of them were in Europe. Outside of Europe, I had been only to the United Arab Emirates and India – two countries of a big contrast: one very rich and the other one very poor, one very clean and the other one very dirty. I guess you can easily guess which one was which!
Knowing that Cambodia is even poorer than India, I was wondering what it was going to look like and whether I was going to survive there long enough to finish my project. It seemed that I was prepared for all worst case scenarios, but you never know. As I have already told you, during my one-month stay in India, something unexpected happened. First of all, it turned out that I was quite sensitive to smells. The odors on the streets were so appalling that for the most of the time, I could hardly keep myself from throwing up. And, as if that was not enough, around the middle of my stay, I got kidnapped by some crazy taxi driver and taken to a jungle! How about that?
So here I was going for about a year to Cambodia – another big adventure of mine. Although the airport of Siem Reap looked very nice and clean, on the way to the hotel, I started already thinking that maybe by mistake we really landed somewhere in India! No joking – on the live flight tracking map, I saw with my own eyes that the airplane was flying above India. After seeing all those tuk tuks and run-down roadside stalls, I thought to myself: “Oh, no, what have I put myself into…”
Luckily, that was only the very first impression and, as you know, the first impression is not necessarily the right one. Soon I realized that Siem Reap was a very nice city and that local people were also very nice and friendly. I’m sure it’s all about personal experience, so I don’t know how you would find it, but for me it was way much better than India. While in India, I felt quite stressed and uncomfortable and started even doubting whether it was worth staying until the end, in Cambodia, I enjoyed every (well, almost every) moment of my stay and occasionally even caught myself thinking that I would not mind even living there!
So what about the cleanliness and all those smells? After I told my father that I was going to Cambodia, he warned me that it was probably going to be even dirtier than in India. Well, first of all, poorer doesn’t necessarily mean dirtier. And second, can really some country beat India? Well, maybe some African countries could be good competitors in this, too. Whatever the case, I was happy to see that the streets in Siem Reap were quite clean. People leave their rubbish outside of their homes in plastic bags or special, “Cambodian style” containers, which look little bit like big colored pots, and the vehicle regularly comes to collect it. Even those, who live in remote places or simply cannot afford paying for the service, tidily collect their rubbish and burn it.
They do even recycling here. Very often a person with a wooden cart would pass by and buy all recyclables. Also there are a few children collecting plastic bottles from the rubbish bins. Although I’m not pro-child labor, in this way, both people collecting the recyclables and those selling them can earn some money and help to keep the environment clean. I wish some of the developed countries took recycling little bit more serious. Sometimes you start collecting all those papers, jars and plastics just to find out that there’s no place to put them!
I would also keep my empty plastic bottles and give them for recycling. Sometimes I would give them to a woman with a cart and sometimes I would offer them to the children wondering around the rubbish bins. I would never take any money from them, because I knew that they had to work very hard and that those few riels would make a much bigger difference in their lives than in mine. I think it would be useful if the government or NGOs put some containers, where foreigners could throw their plastic bottles and other recyclables. That would help to reduce the amount of rubbish and also make the job of such people easier.
The streets of India are not only full of rubbish, which looks like as if though it has been lying there for hundreds of years and being “preserved” for the next generations, but also human excrement, which I found really disgusting. Fortunately, that’s not the case in Cambodia. Although occasionally you do see a child or an adult answering the call of nature under the bridge, at least they don’t do that on roundabouts or in other well-seen places!
To be honest, Siem Reap was much better than what I had initially expected. I thought that it would be less developed and look more like a village, but it was not quite so. It is a nice and quite developed city. As one volunteer correctly noticed, you can sit in a local restaurant and think that you are sitting not in Cambodia, but somewhere in France. And really, there are many nice restaurants in the city, the streets are rather modern and full of nice and colorful buildings, and the narrow alleys of the Pub Street are very cute, especially at night, when the lights are on and many tourists pop in to have their dinner.
I guess the charm and style of Siem Reap is partly to do with the fact that Cambodia is a former colony of France. Even though it has been almost sixty years since the French left, certain elements of their culture continue to be visible until today including the most obvious examples, such as urban architecture and white baguettes, which are being baked and sold at the local food stalls on a daily basis.
According to the same volunteer, if you have money, you can have a rather comfortable life in Cambodia. I completely agree with him. I really enjoyed my stay in this country and, as I have previously mentioned, sometimes I would catch myself thinking that I wouldn’t even mind living there. That was again quite at odds with my previous expectations. Before going to Cambodia, I remember myself thinking whether I could really stand the living conditions and whether I would be able to find necessary toiletries, medicines, mosquito repellents, clothes or purchase the Internet connection. Other volunteers actually had quite similar concerns and they would often e-mail me with different questions, which I was, of course, more than happy to answer.
Although my living conditions were really quite basic, it was only because I had a very limited budget. The choice of accommodation in Siem Reap is bigger than you can imagine, and most places are really very nice. In the city, there is a good Western pharmacy and a few Western supermarkets, the biggest of which are the Lucky Mall, Angkor Market and Angkor Trade Center. You can find almost everything there from food and drinks to toiletries and house supplies, such as cleaning products, hangers, cookware, utensils, disposables, etc.
There is also quite a reasonable choice of things at the Old Market, such as blankets, pillows, mosquito nets, raincoats, umbrellas, cookware, etc. The prices are much lower here, especially if you bargain. The market is quite packed, so you may struggle to find something that you need, but you can always ask. Cambodians are usually very friendly and quite willing to help. There was one lady working at the corner of the market, so I would always buy things from her and if she didn’t have something, she would help me to find another place. At the market, I even bought some cloth and had the window curtains maid by a local tailor.
Mobile phone SIM cards and the Internet connection are also easily available. There are a few companies offering relevant services and they are all quite cheap and straightforward. As soon as I arrived, I bought a phone SIM card from M-Phone and mobile Internet service from Metfone. Both of them can be topped up on an ongoing basis, and you can stop using the service whenever you want, so there’s really nothing to worry about. The mobile Internet was too expensive to be used for watching videos or downloading large files, but other than that it was really handy. There was a cable and wireless Internet in the office, so I used the mobile one mainly at home. I bought the modem for $35 and subscribed to the package LT 12, which provided me with 4 GB for $12. Since I used it mainly for e-mails, browsing and Skype, it used to last for about a month, sometimes a bit more, which was quite good.
So is there something that you cannot find in Siem Reap? Well, unless you are very spoiled or have some special needs, then I think you should be fine. If you are thinking what should go into your suitcase and what not, then maybe you can put some light pants and T-shirts, a pair of comfortable sandals and some things that you may need in the very beginning before you do some shopping. If you are planning to volunteer at an NGO and wondering what gifts you could bring to them, you can always ask them. I used to make a wishlist and post it on the website. One of the things that I used to ask for was educational books in English, such as illustrated children’s encyclopedias or UNICEF books telling about children’s lives and schools around the world. Although many volunteers ask if they should bring some stationary or clothes, I usually advise them not to do so, because these things are widely available in Siem Reap and members of the staff know better what particular items they need most.
The only thing, which you may miss in Siem Reap is the active nightlife. Although there are some places, which are open until the midnight or even until early morning hours, the choice is not very big. That’s one of the reasons why some people prefer to stay in Phnom Penh rather than Siem Reap. However, since I am not a party-type person, Siem Reap was absolutely fine for me. After living for a couple of years in busy and crowded London, I actually even enjoyed the peace and quietness that I found there. I have never regretted to have chosen this place for my volunteering and I would always be happy to come back to it again!
5. Volunteering at Life and Hope Association
Life and Hope Association (LHA) is a Cambodian NGO, which has been in operation since 2005. It is run by Buddhist monks and located in Wat Damnak temple, Siem Reap, just 200m from the Old Market and Pub Street. LHA has six large projects: Hotel de la Paix and LHA Sewing School, Foreign Language School, Program Advancing Girls’ Education (PAGE), Children’s Development Village (orphanage), Angkor Thom Junior High School, and Sustainable Community Project.
Hotel de la Paix and LHA Sewing School offers 10-month sewing classes to the girls from poor and disadvantaged backgrounds. For the duration of the course, they are provided with free accommodation, food and bicycles. After graduation, each girl is given a new sewing machine and some materials. They can look for relevant employment or start their own business. Some of the girls continue working at school, and LHA finds clients for them.
When I arrived, the girls were still working in the old wooden building. It used to get flooded and there was not enough space for the students and graduates to work together, so it was decided to build a new modern and more spacious building. The construction was completed and the new school opened in the middle of April 2011.
Foreign Language School provides free and low-cost English classes from Beginner to Intermediate level. Being able to communicate in English enables students to get jobs in restaurants, hotels and tour agencies. Before I left, the old building of the school was being renovated. Both the sewing school and the language school are located in the temple area, just a few steps away from the office. Although the language school is mainly open in the evenings, the sewing school can be visited any time, except from lunch hours.
Another great project is Program Advancing Girls’ Education (PAGE). It provides girls with education, accommodation, food, and school supplies. Education includes public schooling, private tutoring, and also English classes. After finishing high school, they are provided with scholarships to study at universities and training schools.
I lived with these girls for the first three months. The boarding house was located about 10 min bicycle ride from Wat Damnak temple. Towards the end of my stay in Cambodia, it was decided to raise money, to buy some land and build a new boarding house, so that LHA doesn’t need to rent a house and in this way can address the girls’ needs better. When I left, the land was already purchased and a plan of the new building was being prepared.
Children’s Development Village is an orphanage located about 37km from Siem Reap in the direction of Angkor Thom temple. It accommodates about 40 kids and provides them with food, clothes and education. It has a vegetable garden and during my stay had some solar panels installed, so that kids have light to study in the evenings and don’t need to rely on oil lamps.
Angkor Thom Junior High School is not far from the Children’s Development Village and teaches students from grade 7 to grade 9. There is also a boarding house, where students living far away from school can stay overnight. Alike the orphanage, the school has a vegetable garden. When I left, a new boarding house was being constructed.
Finally, Sustainable Community Project, formerly known as Food for Education Project, provides families, which cannot afford their children to go to school, with rice, uniforms and school supplies. During my stay, the project was moved from Phnom Kraum area to Angkor Thom district, where the other two projects – the orphanage and the junior high school – are located. During a meeting with local representatives, it was decided that in the near future, the program would expand to include training on income generating activities, such as sewing and agriculture.
For the duration of my stay, I was appointed to work as a Program Officer. The Deputy Director, who was also the chief aid to the temple’s head, offered me his working place, which was next to the Executive Director. On the very first day, I was presented to the members of the staff as a highly educated and experienced person, who was going to help the organization to make some positive improvements.
Until I met the director face-to-face, I was not quite sure what my exact functions would be. To be honest, even after meeting him, it didn’t become much clearer. I had asked about my roles by e-mail and even sent some suggestions of my own, but, to be honest, it was not very helpful. Later I realized that the director rarely discussed the volunteering roles in advance and didn’t keep any records of the previous volunteers either.
As the director was a very busy person, my presence helped him to reduce his heavy workload. I helped to design a new website, developed and updated online contents, posted the news, coordinated volunteers, helped with reports and proposals, event coordination, enquiries, newsletters, communications with other NGOs and donors and also made some suggestions on program improvement and best practice implementation.
For the most of the time, I worked in the office, which may sound a bit boring, but it was quite okay, as from time to time, I had an opportunity to visit projects and also meet new people coming for volunteering or other purposes. I worked on a variety of different tasks, and that’s actually the way I like it. It very much reminded me my previous job, where I was drafting reports, coordinating classes, organizing events and excursions and doing a million of other jobs at the same time. In Cambodia, the work and life pace was, of course, much slower, which was quite nice. In this way, you have more time to complete the tasks and a better opportunity to enjoy what you do.
Like I said, there was no proper volunteer coordination program in place, so I planned and prioritized most of my work myself. Luckily, I am a very independent and organized person and I like to take initiatives, so the lack of structure and attention was not really bothering me. I did, however, notice that for other volunteers, it was a bit of a problem. They were wondering around without anything to do and were little bit upset if the director didn’t have time to talk to them. When eventually the director started shifting some of the volunteer coordination responsibilities to me, I was very happy.
I created a database, was replying to volunteer enquiries, matching their skills with the project needs, and making sure that they are always provided with the necessary support. I added a page about volunteering on the website and provided information on the frequently asked questions. Many people were asking what items they could bring, so I also added a wishlist and, after talking to the girls, posted a list of the books that they wanted to read. With with the help of donors and volunteers, we were able to make a small library at PAGE, which was really great. The girls were extremely happy.
Apart from coordinating volunteers, I also used to maintain communications with some of the donors. I helped to make a couple of videos, which were later used for fundraising, used to provide necessary information and keep an eye on the agreed arrangements and expenditure reports. Nothing makes me happier than to know that everything is under control and that people are provided with the best quality of information and service.
The director was rarely in the office, and the program director was transferred to the rural projects, so most of the time I worked in the office with the administrator. She was a very nice girl, and soon we became good friends. We had many things in common: serious approach to work, honesty, curiosity and openness to learning, etc. Even our birthdays were almost at the same time – just one day apart! In our free time, we used to talk about different things and have much laugh. She got very sad when I had to leave. I told her to promise that one day she would come and visit me in the U.S. It would be really sad if we don’t meet again. We still keep in touch through the Internet. Many of my other former colleagues also keep in touch, which is really nice.
Although volunteering at LHA helped me to develop a range of different skills, it turned out to be even more beneficial in another and less expected way. While previously I worked in a Red Cross day center and mainly developed my knowledge about refugees and asylum, now my focus has shifted towards skills related to NGO management, such as capacity building, organizational development, strategic planning, human resource and project management, leadership, etc. As I like developing my knowledge in a particular field, observing and analyzing people, helping them to realize their full potential, solving problems and giving advice, I started even thinking that maybe I should consider developing my career as an NGO consultant. I haven’t yet made my final decision, but I am thinking of becoming a certified coach and open my own private practice.
Another great outcome of volunteering at LHA was an opportunity to meet many interesting people. There were many volunteers coming from all over the world: USA, Australia, Germany, England, Canada, Belgium, Malaysia, Singapore, China, and Israel. Most of them were highly qualified people, such as teachers, engineers, businessmen, coaches, lawyers, and social workers. It was a real pleasure to work with them. Nowhere else I met so many people, who shared similar values and who had such interesting personalities. It has been a really great experience!
While volunteering at LHA, I also had an opportunity to learn a bit more about the organization itself, which, as I’ve already mentioned, eventually grew into a broader interest in how NGOs are managed and how to make them work more effectively. I think each NGO has its own strengths and weaknesses, and it’s important to identify them in order to be able to progress further. I think in general, LHA is a strong NGO with a clear vision and direction, having a solid and durable foundation for its activities. Although all members of the staff have made their own contribution, much praise for it should, without a doubt, go to the Founder and the Executive Director, Ven. Somnieng. Because he clearly knows what he’s doing and why, he can also communicate it very well to other people and attract a number of volunteers, donors and other good people, who are willing to give him a helping hand.
It can therefore be an example for many NGOs, who seem to be struggling in this regard. So often, you can hear them complaining about the lack of money and almost begging for financial support to keep their programs running. In my opinion, they all start from a wrong foot. What they need is a good leader, clear vision, mission and goals, activities that clearly prove the NGO’s commitment and efficiency, and some marketing to spread the good news. I believe that everything starts from these few simple steps. If an NGO is asking for money and hoping that it will solve all its problems, but doesn’t know how to run it effectively or how to spend the money wisely, then no wonder that no one wants to help them. You need to put something in the basket before asking other people to contribute!
I’m not a specialist in fundraising and I can even admit that it is something that I like doing least, but nevertheless I have gained quite many useful insights while observing how LHA works. There are so many ways to attract the needed money. Usually people are the ones, who bring it, so simply need to leave the NGO’s doors and windows open and make all people welcome. LHA makes this message very clear, and you can feel a warm spirit of welcome by talking to Ven. Somnieng or even by visiting the website. No wonder that many people want to come back again and again. Some of them start raising money, when they go home, or even start foundations in order to make the fundraising process more effective. They also tell their friends and bring more people into the family. Not only individuals pop in to help, but also fundraising NGOs, hotels, tour agencies, universities and many other groups. When you see an effective and inspiring work of the NGO and feel always welcome there, you naturally start wanting to be part of it and make a contribution. This is what LHA is about – working from heart and opening the heart to other people!
That is not, however, to say that LHA is a perfect organiztion or that it has completely no weaknesses and limitations. Nothing is perfect in this world, and there is always some room for improvement. For example, one of the things that easily draws one’s attention is the fact that the Executive Director is too busy and yet not very willing to delegate the tasks to other members of the staff. It is interesting in a way, because leader’s or manager’s job is not to do all the tasks by himself or herself, but to assign different roles to other members of the staff, supervise their work on an ongoing basis and provide necessary support and guidance. Without a doubt, the leader should be an enthusiastic and hard-working person and show good example to others, but it should definitely be a team work and shared effort and not one man’s struggle.
Sometimes you get a feeling that the potential of certain employees and volunteers is not fully used and that they may lack the clarity about what their roles are and what exactly is expected from them. For example, volunteers may not be experienced enough to take their own initiatives or simply have no time to understand what activities would be most beneficial and what the best way would be to deliver them effectively. Although the members of the staff may have a significant advantage in this regard, they may be reluctant to take initiatives due to restricting cultural norms, such as respect for and submission to authority, elders, and especially monks. Although regular meetings of the staff take place, some of the members have admitted that they always wait for the directions from above and that they don’t feel very comfortable in expressing their opinion openly, especially when it contradicts the opinion of the director.
I think before you start volunteering, it’s always good to have a list of goals and expectations in order to keep everything under control and maximize the benefits, but it’s equally important to keep it updated and adjust according to the changing reality. It is great, when someone wants to make a difference in people’s lives or achieve some specific goals, but always need to remember that this is not an ideal world and that they may face many barriers on the way or even have to abandon some of their goals as they move along.
I failed and had to give up many times. I was asked to teach English to the girls at PAGE, but I could get them all together only in the evenings, when they were already very tired and not able to focus well. That was also the time, when they were supposed to do their homework.
Then I started showing films on a big screen at the Foreign Language School, which seemed like a great initiative, but eventually I had to stop, because there was no one to help me to carry heavy desks and to set up the projector. Also despite the fact that I always carefully select the films of educational nature, I felt that they were not exactly what the director had in mind. Since the Internet connection was not good enough to download the alternative ones and I used to get very tired staying until so late at work, eventually I stopped.
I started taking one of the PAGE girls for counseling at another NGO, but that didn’t work out either. The NGO was not very cooperative and after our first visit, was reluctant to schedule further appointments. Instead of that, the member of the staff started contacting me for personal purposes, which was quite disappointing. You can always try to be responsible and professional, but you shouldn’t expect that others will behave exactly the same.
I was also asked to teach English to the staff. I was willing to do that and started carefully designing an interesting course combining English with capacity building, but the classes were doomed to failure and didn’t last very long. When it came to the time slot allocation, I was told that I could teach only during lunch break, which was very inconvenient. Finally, I got thirty minutes after the lunch break, but the classroom was still quite empty. Some members of the staff were simply not motivated to learn anything.
After I left Cambodia, one day I got a message from one of my former colleagues. He was a young and very funny guy. In his message he wrote: “When I see you, I remember the time, when I studied with you. It was very difficult for me, because I was a lazy student, but you were the best teacher and a beautiful teacher. When I remember you, I miss you very much and I laugh alone.”
After reading this, I also started “laughing alone”. One day when I asked him if he wanted to join my class, he replied that he had no time and that he was very busy with his work. When I went to see what he was doing, I saw that he was trying to log-in to his Facebook, but couldn’t remember his password. All through the lesson, we could hear the sound of his computer as he was entering a wrong password again and again.
Michael Jordan has once said: “I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” I could probably say the same about my volunteering and about many other situations in life. Sometimes you need to fail in some things, so that you can succeed in others. I think the most important thing is to be true to yourself, always give your best shot and learn to let things go, when circumstances require. Sometimes you may feel powerless and frustrated if you cannot achieve the results that you wanted and when you see that everything is not the way you expected, but believe me – all that you do with your full concentration and heart does count and does make a difference even if you don’t see it. So keep going and never lose faith in yourself and those around you!
6. Living at the PAGE boarding house
For the first three months, I lived with local girls at the PAGE boarding house. It was a typical Cambodian house with very basic facilities. There was no shower, no hot water, no running water, no Western toilet, no Western cooker, no fridge, no washing machine, no TV and, of course, no Internet. The girls were sleeping on the floor. I did have a bed, but it was without a mattress, so in the morning I used to feel quite tired.
For cooking the food the girls were using coal and traditional clay stoves. They would cook once per day or once each other day and the rest of the time eat the food that has been left. Usually it was simple rice with a bit of morning glories or water lilies. Sometimes the food they cooked was quite delicious, but for the most of the time it didn’t taste very good. I love Cambodian dishes, but I think maybe the supervisor was not a good cook and since all the girls were from very poor families, they probably didn’t have an opportunity to learn good cooking either.
After having one or two meals with the girls, I bought a small gas cooker and started cooking myself. Sometimes I would share some of my food with the girls and sometimes I would cook for everyone. Although I didn’t have much money and my meals were quite simple, they used to like everything I made. I would usually make salads, stir-fries or pancakes. Vegetables comprise the biggest part of my diet and I eat most of my meals with rice, so I was feeling quite comfortable with the ingredients that were available, although I did miss sauces and spices, which were so abundant in England.
I thought it was pity that, although there were a variety of fresh and cheap vegetables available at the market, they were not included in the diet. Once I suggested to the supervisor that I could show how to cook some alternative meals for the same price, but unfortunately she didn’t seem to be interested. Because of the lack of hygiene when cooking and a habit of eating the food, which has been left in the room temperature for a considerable period of time, the girls’ would often complain of having stomach aches. On one occasion, the supervisor was sick for about a week. Based on the symptoms, it looked like she had food poisoning. On my last day, for the first time they made a vegetable stir-fry. I thought it would have been little bit impolite if I refused to eat it, so I tried, although afterwards I got a stomachache as well.
Although I love cooking and normally spend a considerable period of time in the kitchen, I soon realized that in such conditions, food preparation was going to be a bit of a headache. Although the house, especially the upper floor, looked quite cozy, by no means that could be said about the kitchen. The walls urgently needed repainting and it was quite dirty. In the middle of the kitchen, there was a well, which was used for the waste water and food-left overs. It was smelly, was attracting many flies and mosquitos, and the waste water, which was going out of the kitchen, was collecting just outside of the window.
One day, I found mice excrement in the water used for cooking. When the weather got colder, dozens of mice – big and small – flooded into my room. They were running on the floor and climbing the walls. It was a real nightmare. The girls told me that this had happened before and that sometimes the mice would come to their faces, while they were sleeping on the floor. When I told the supervisor about the mice, she only laughed at me saying: “What, are you afraid of mice?” Not only she didn’t do anything about the mice, but also decided to take the cat and her three kittens, that the girls were taking care of, to the temple.
Although Cambodia is a Buddhist country and Buddhism forbids killing or harming any living being, it is very common for people to take the unwanted cats and dogs to the temples and leave them there. Sometimes it is hard-breaking to see starving and sick animals wondering around the temple and crying for help. Despite the fact that there was always much rice being thrown away (yes, cats in Cambodia do eat rice!) and many mice running around the house, the poor kittens were exiled. In my opinion, they were too small to be separated from their mother and not only needed milk, but also could be easily slaughtered by male cats. Luckily for me and unluckily for the kittens, their mother was left in peace. Usually she was sleeping outside of the house, so now I started taking her overnight into my room, which really helped.
Because the floor in the house was not very clean, eventually I started wearing slippers. Sleeping on dirty bedding and having to wash it by hands, was the last thing on my mind. Not because I am spoiled or anything, but due to the health issues that I have. The supervisor had probably never seen anyone wearing slippers, so she was very shocked with such “disrespectful behavior”. She complained to the girls that I was wearing slippers inside of the house and told them that I was walking loud and disturbing her. Having in mind how light my slippers were and how considerate I always am towards other people, I thought that was a very immature and silly thing to say.
I think she behaved like that, because she was jealous of me. She didn’t like the fact that I was asked to work with the PAGE program and that the girls quickly became so fond of me. I realized that she was not going to change over a night and that things were going to get worse before they got better. And I was right. She took the girls to the Water Festival and neither told me that, nor asked me if I wanted to go together. The same also happened, when all the girls, the supervisor and other members of the staff were planning to go to the countryside for the “moon praying” festival, but she didn’t even mention that to me. One evening, she came to my room and told me that I should not share any information with the girls and that if I knew something that she didn’t know, first I had to tell her and then she would tell the girls. When I asked her for the reason, she didn’t know what to say. It really hurt me. I explained to her how I felt about such behavior and that I had come all the way from England in order to help and not to fight with her over influence.
The nights got colder. There was a huge window in my room and it had neither glass, nor shutters, so it used to get very cold at night. I got ill, and because both my room and the water used for bathing were cold, I couldn’t get any better. I couldn’t even lie down and take a rest, because there were always clouds of mosquitos flying around. I decided to stay for a couple of nights at a hotel and eventually decided to move to a guesthouse. I guess I wanted to have at least a bit more of a comfort and, most importantly, a peace of mind.
It was a bit sad to leave the girls, because all of them had been so nice to me. Despite our age difference, similar values and a good sense of humor helped us to bond really well. We used to have a very good time together and have much laugh. They were very friendly and hard-working girls. Since they used to go to public school, private classes and also English, they used to go out at about 7am and come back only at about 7pm. The rest of time they used to spend cooking, cleaning the house and studying. No boyfriends, no nightclubs, no alcohol, no smoking, and no teen tantrums.
Maybe it was because they were brought up this way or maybe because they experienced more difficulties in life than other typical teenagers. The girls’ families were very poor. Prior to joining the program, they used to help their parents on the farm. Some of them, in order to support the family, had to start working from as yearly as grade five: working in the construction and rubber plantations, repairing the shoes, teaching. In a way, they reminded me of myself, when I was a teenager. My life was not very easy either. I used to work hard helping my parents on the farm and started earning my first income, when I was fourteen.
One of the girls got seriously ill with Meningitis. I spent much time taking care of her, which helped us to bond even more. “You are like my mother”, she used to say. When I was leaving Cambodia, she was veryd and couldn’t stop crying. She still stays in touch with me and always writes to me if she has good news or is worried about some problems. Instead of going to a training school, I encouraged her to apply for university. Eventually she listened to my advice and got a World Bank scholarship to study at the Royal U saniversity of Phnom Penh. I was very happy for her.
7. Living at Cambodia Backpacker Guesthouse
My room at the guest house was very simple and basic, but I was happy that I finally made a decision to move out of PAGE. I didn’t have to share with anyone, so I could feel more relaxed and have a better rest. I think my move was in a very good time, because in March, I started teaching in the evenings at university and used to get very tired. Having to live in a guest house meant that I had no kitchen, but since I had neither time, nor energy for cooking, I was happy to eat my meals at a restaurant. Finally I had a big bed with a mattress, Western toilet, shower, and even a cable TV. I had really missed television. Now I could watch my favorite programs, get educated and also feel less isolated from the rest of the world.
The water in the shower was, unfortunately, cold. It used to be cold on cooler days and warm on hotter days. I wish it was the other way around! The absence of hot water was, however, not the main disadvantage. The biggest problem or, I should say, a real nightmare, was having to share the room with enormous size cockroaches! They were not there on a daily basis, but often enough to get completely on my nerves. Needless to say, the presence of cockroaches meant that the cleanliness at the guest house was far from perfect. Apart from cockroaches, there were also ants and geckos. In Cambodia, it’s not a surprise to see small lizards climbing on the walls, but having ants walking on my bed was not very nice.
As the name of the guest house suggests, most of its clients were probably backpackers. There were, however, some exceptions. One evening, I was walking home after my dinner and saw a prostitute, who was following a group of foreign men and persuading them to have sex with her. They were walking just in front of me, so I got happy, when they finally turned left, so that I could finally go my own way. But surprise, surprise – I walked into the guesthouse, and the same prostitute was already booking a room with some old man! I don’t know I was more surprised at how quickly she found another customer or that she was going to have her shift in my guesthouse, but it was clear that the owners didn’t mind at all.
The guesthouse was offering cheap laundry services, but it was not of a good quality. After washing, clothes would look quite worn-out. One day, I decided to give them for washing by a washing machine, which was a bit more expensive than washing by hands, but the result was even worse. I got my clothes back and they were all dirty. Actually, it looked like they were not even in water. When I complained to a member of the staff, he said: “That’s because you asked to wash them by a washing machine”. That was ridiculous. I had to pay for the clothes, which were still completely dirty and ask them to wash them by hands.
Another time, I got all my clothes back, but I noticed that one pair of pants was still missing. As it turned out, they were missing for a reason. They were damaged. I did ask them to wash my clothes separately, so that light clothes don’t get damaged, but apparently that was not very helpful. I was clearly not very happy to see my favorite pants being damaged just a day before leaving, but they assured me that it was like that when they got them. I knew it was not true and I had seen them saying the same to many other guests.
The food was also not very good. Many foreigners, including myself, would get a stomach bug after eating there. The only food that I could eat was noodle soup with vegetables and a pork stake. The member of the staff used to laugh at me that all the time I was ordering the same food. I didn’t want to be rude otherwise I would have told her that actually there was nothing else that could be eaten there without getting sick! One day the girl, who was bringing my food to the room, dropped the fork on the dirty floor and put it back on my plate. That was one of the hints on where the stomach bugs might have been coming from.
The guest house was very close to Wat Damnak, the Old Market and university, and the staff was quite friendly, but if I had more money, I would definitely have stayed in a better place. I was more than happy to finally move out and go back to my comfortable bed in England. Thankfully, I slept well and didn’t see any cockroaches in my dreams!
8. Charity vs. business
In Cambodia, there are many local and international NGOs. Some of them are really great. Some of them are not very effective. And some of them are quite doggy. The third and the second type are sometimes difficult to distinguish. As UNICEF has found, as much as 70% of orphanages operating in Cambodia are actually not orphanages by definition, and all of their kids have at least one parent. While some NGOs do this to provide disadvantaged kids with better opportunities in life, others seem to have less altruistic intentions.
On my way home, I would often see some kids distributing leaflets and asking to come to the orphanage for a performance or donate some money. For the sake of interest, I decided to go. Although the performance was really nice, I was very shocked to see how the kids lived. Their dormitories were completely awful and looked like some run-down stables. After seeing how many people had come to the performance and a corresponding number of donations being collected afterwards, I started thinking that something was just not right with that place.
It was difficult to understand why instead of addressing some of the kids’ basic needs, so much money was being spent on expensive costumes and food for visitors. Instead of explaining how he was going to improve the kid’s diet and the living conditions, the deputy director pointed out to a small monkey sitting in a cage and told me that in order to attract more people, he was planning to buy more animals and make a zoo. Also he wanted to make a swimming pool, so that visitors and children would have a place for swimming. I didn’t know to laugh or to cry and whether he was really stupid or just pretending.
One day, a man from Belgium came to me asking if he could volunteer at LHA. Unfortunately, he didn’t have any skills that we could benefit from, so I told him that maybe he should consider volunteering at some other NGO. “Oh, no!” he said, “I have already tried volunteering at some other NGOs, but had a very bad experience”. When asked about what had happened, he told me that he had volunteered at the same orphanage that I had visited. He had bought over 8,000 bricks and two trucks of sand and put a new floor in the office, so that it doesn’t get flooded, but when next time he came back, he saw that everything had mysteriously vanished. And that was not the only negative experience that he had at that place.
A couple of other long-term volunteers had a similar story to tell. I had previously seen them distributing the leaflets and also helping at the orphanage, when I went there, which actually made me think that maybe it was not as bad as I thought it was. But it turned out that they were completely disappointed with how the NGO was run and they left soon after that evening. They too got an impression that it was a well-panned family business rather than a charity based on altruistic principles. When they told the deputy director about their decision to leave, he warned them to be careful and think twice before saying something about orphanage to other people. They were actually quite worried that he may do something to them if they tried to speak up the truth.
According to the couple, each month, around $3,000 was being raised during performances and much more money was coming from other sources, but despite that, kids continued living in appalling conditions and eating plain rice. They had seen money being donated for the same items many times and overheard an argument between the staff and the parents, from which they understood that there was some kind of contract between the NGO and the parents and that the parents wanted to take their child back, but the NGO didn’t allow them. They had many questions, but never got any answers. They could not talk to the kids either, because they had been told not to speak to people without a member of the staff present.
Was it poor management or a well-run business? It’s not for me to decide. Sometimes it’s really difficult to tell, where one ends and the other one starts. I just hope that the government will take its job more serious and will check on such places more often. Also I hope that next time, before parting with their money and time, donors and volunteers will be more careful and will not only do a bit more research about the place they are going to benefit, but also will make sure that the donation and work that they do is going to end up as expected and produce effective and long-lasting results. The same could be said not only about supporting NGOs, but also individuals.
Each time I was walking home, I used to meet a girl. She was 12 years old, but because of malnutrition she looked much younger. She was always dirty, wearing poor clothes, with long un-brushed hair, sometimes with bare foot and no top. She would always ask for some money or to buy some milk for babies – her two younger sisters.
One day she kept following me, so I finally bought some milk and told her that if she wanted to have home, food and clothes and go to school, she had to come to Wat Damnak, so we can take her to our orphanage. On a piece of paper, I wrote down the name of the organization and the names of some contact persons.
A couple of days later, I met her again. She took me to her house – a very poor hut near the river. She lifted something on the wall and took out a piece of paper – the same that I had previously given her. She agreed to go with me to Wat Damnak and meet Ven. Somnieng – the Executive Director of LHA and the second aid to the head of the monks.
As I had expected, he already knew the girl. He said that there had been many organizations that had tried to help her, but they had never succeeded. The problem was her grandmother. She was a gambler and she exploited the girl for money. The story of the babies was part of her “business plan”. The girl’s mother died from HIV maybe ten years ago and she did not have any other children. According to some resources, the girl’s father was German and he was still living in Siem Reap.
It was clear that because the girl was a good source of income, her grandmother didn’t want her to go away. It was not likely that the girl would make such a decision either. Her grandmother was the only family member that she had ever known. After having been brainwashed for so many years, it would be naive to expect that she would understand what is best for her. When asked why she didn’t want to live away from her grandmother, she said that her grandmother had many debts and that she had to work hard to return the money.
The girl continued asking other people for money and milk for non-existing babies. She would always try to ask for a big container of expensive milk powder, so that later they can sell it. I think the best what you can do in such cases, is take the child for a lunch – that’s probably the only thing that would benefit the girl and not her exploitative grandmother. I’m sure there were also other ways to help her, but unfortunately it was not for me to decide.
While eating lunch at the local restaurants, some kids would often come and ask to buy postcards or pay for their lunch. Although buying a lunch can seem like a nice gesture, the fact that a child is asking to buy a meal for him or her, doesn’t necessarily mean that they are really hungry or that they cannot afford to buy food themselves. Since in Cambodia, I was on a tight budget and was able to afford no more than two simple meals a day, I used to say that I cannot pay for a lunch, but I can share the food that I have already ordered. It was then clear that they were not really that hungry. They would immediately start making their faces, complain that they don’t like the food that I have ordered and that I should order something else for them. Sometimes they would get very rude and demanding, which I didn’t like at all.
One day, I cooked some food for the girl, who was in hospital, but she didn’t eat, so I had to take it back home. While I was sitting on a bench, a girl came to me. She was wearing pajamas and trying to earn some money by selling postcards. I had just come out of the supermarket, so I offered her some biscuits and asked if she was hungry. I gave her the home-made stir-fry and rice. She was really hungry and straight away started eating. She was very nice and polite. When I offered her some biscuits, she wanted to make sure that I had enough for myself and thanked me many times.
She reminded me of one child that I had met in India. He was selling souvenirs near Taj Mahal in Agra. I didn’t want to buy anything, so I said that I could give him some money instead. But he said: “No, Madam, I cannot take money from you if you don’t buy anything”. I almost insisted. I said: “Look, it’s very hot. You are probably thirsty – go and buy some drink. Also you need some new clothes.” But he was firm as a rock.
I’m sure many other kids would have immediately grabbed the money out of my hand and wouldn’t have even bothered to say “thank you”, but he was a very honest and hard-working child. He knew what dignity and respect was. I’m sure he was going to grow into a good person. I think we should help the kids like him and not some rude ones, who are treating people as if they were some walking bags of money, and would be ready to bite their heads off for a couple of dollars!
9. Buddhist monks: nirvana vs. education
Before going to Cambodia, I was wondering what monks would be like. On one hand, I was excited to have an opportunity to work with monks and hoping that they would be very wise and spiritually mature people, so that I could learn from them. On the other hand, I was a bit worried that they may be very serious, follow strict religious rules and that I may feel quite bored and restricted.
Overall, I think monks in Cambodia are quite simple people. Although they do follow some rules, which I do not necessarily approve of, overall they are very nice and friendly. While most of the monks, especially the younger ones, are quite shy, others are quite sociable and funny. It was definitely an interesting experience to work with them!
At university, I had one student, who was a monk. As homework, one day he wrote an essay about the life of monks. According to him, on one hand, the life of monks is easy, because they get food from people, but on the other hand, it is difficult, because they have no home, no clothes (apart from three orange robes) and no family. They cannot drive motorbikes and can eat only twice per day – early in the morning and before the noon. After that, they can only drink.
From what I heard from other monks, having to stay with empty stomach for the rest of the day is not always easy. I think if a person practices deep meditation, he is less dependent on physical needs, but, for some reason, monks in Cambodia meditate only during rainy season. At least, that’s what I was told. The rest of the year they do chanting, which is probably not the best way to fill up one’s stomach, especially when you have to spend most of the day studying or doing the community work.
The food that monks eat is usually very simple, mainly comprising of rice. When a volunteer from Malyasia saw what food they eat, she was very surprised. “Monks in Malaysia are very respected by the society and are provided with the best food”, she said. Another volunteer noticed that monks could complement their diet with vegetables if they had a garden, but strangely they were not allowed to have one. There were only some chickens walking around the temple.
Like I said, most monks, especially the younger ones, are quite shy, but not all of them. My student, who was a monk, used to call me a beautiful teacher, and another monk, who I worked with, used to tell me that I had very beautiful eyes and that I was more beautiful than the local girls. Although such comments were just another indication that monks were also human, having them get interested in me was the last thing on my mind! In past, one man, studying to become a Catholic priest, had fallen in love with me, a Muslim imam had proposed to me twice, and my Afghan colleague’s wife had made a series of absurd scenes fearing that I would take the husband from her. Even though it had been neither my fault, nor intention and similar situations were not very likely to repeat, during my stay in Cambodia, I tried to be extra cautious about the way I dressed or spoke. Maybe in this way, I didn’t fully express my true personality, but I think it was for the better!
While working at Wat Damnak temple, I was always wondering why all monks were so young. My first guess was that when monks get older, they usually leave. It turned out that I was right. The reason was that many boys were becoming monks or temple boys not in the pursuit or nirvana or spiritual development, but in order to get education and to break out of the circle of poverty.
If you studied history or literature, then you probably know that in old times the most educated people were priests and for many boys, whose parents were not rich, becoming a priest was almost the only way to getting a good education. Even now in Islamic countries, such as Pakistan, many poor families send their boys to Madrasas (religious schools), because they provide them with free food and shelter.
Cambodia is not an exception. Many families are poor and cannot afford education for their children. While the opportunities for girls are perhaps even more limited than for boys, boys can at least become monks or temple boys and get free education, food and shelter. According to my monk student, boys, who want to be monks, study dharma and Buddha’s teachings, while others study all subjects that the king provides to them and, after finishing school, they leave and become ordinary people.
I guess in Cambodia, there are many men, who had previously been monks. A man working in a computer shop told me that he had been a monk before. A man working in another NGO told me that he had been monk for six years. When I was volunteering at LHA, the Coordinator of the Foreign Language School also decided to leave. I never asked him why, but I thought it was because he just finished his high school. One day he came to the office wearing ordinary clothes – not a monk anymore!
The director of Life and Hope Association, Ven. Somnieng, has followed a similar path. Because his family was poor and he could not afford going to a junior high school, he also decided to become a monk. Although his mother was initially not very happy, eventually it turned out to be one of the best decisions in his life. Not only he completed a high school, but also got an opportunity to study at university in the U.S. His own struggle in getting education inspired him to create LHA and help young Cambodians, especially women and children, to break out of the circle of poverty with the help of education.
If you think that monks study only disciplines related to Buddhism, religion or philosophy, then you are highly mistaken! Many people get surprised when they hear that Ven. Somnieng got his degree in Business Management. Voanews.com has even posted an article called “Ambitious Monk Mixes Business with Buddhism”. And he is not alone. Ven. Lhoeurm is also a fourth year student in Business Management. Ven. Choeurn got both his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Management. And Ven. Nol. has Bachelor’s degree in English Literature. These are actually some of the most popular study programs in Cambodia. Maybe they are not very related to nirvana or spirituality, but sure they will be very useful, when monks will not be monks anymore!
Monks are very respected by the society and enjoy many privileges. They should always be addressed by “venerable”, which by definition means accorded a great deal of respect, especially because of age, wisdom, or character. Local people greet them by bending numerous times on the floor. When the food is served, no one can start eating until the monks finish, and also no one can sit higher than monks. When my student started writing his essay about the life of the monks, he defined them as people, who never make sins. Such definition naturally raised a smile on my face, although I do understand where such perception might be coming from – that’s how monks are seen and perceived by the public. I think because monks are considered to be standing a few steps higher than ordinary people, their words and actions are rarely questioned. This does not, however, mean that they are perfect or that they don’t have any weaknesses.
When I was in Cambodia, on TV, they showed some country in Latin America, where, in order to save money, people were buying illegally smuggled petrol near the highways. A couple of days later, we stopped in exactly the same-looking place and the driver started buying illegal petrol. I don’t think it was the first time he was doing this. The monk explained to me that it was cheaper this way. I was clearly not impressed. First of all, I think values should always come before the money and second, I’m sure they could have saved much petrol and money if they had planned their trip in advance.
The monk threw the rubbish through the car window and told me that he was going to ask another monk to help him get a scholarship to study abroad. I told him that he should try to improve his English and apply for one of the scholarships advertised on the Internet, but he was not really interested. When I shared the information about scholarships with another monk, he also admitted that he had no patience with such things and that he was probably going to contact one of his friends and ask for a favor. Easy as that!
Although I thought that monks were great people and although I really respected them for their efforts to help the community, I had a feeling that Buddhism practiced in Cambodia was a bit superficial, not as deep as it could or should be. And I was not alone, who had such impression. According to one volunteer, living in another Buddhist country, it could be the result of the communist Pol Pot regime, during which religion was banned and many monks and other educated people killed. I think she may be right.
In any case, working with monks has been a wonderful experience. Maybe I didn’t advance my Buddhist knowledge much, but I learned something perhaps even more valuable – something about how people were rather than how they should be. It has helped not only to learn new things about the world, but also about myself!
10. Weather: are you thinking or sinking?
Very often students in Cambodia say “I sink” instead of “I think”. While it is a common pronunciation mistake, sometimes when they say “I sink”, they really mean it. At the time, when I am writing this book, Cambodia just starts recovering after terrible floods. For a few weeks, the streets of Siem Reap were full of water. The LHA office was closed, and the PAGE girls were moved to another place. Many rice fields were flooded, and even lives lost. The devastating effects of the floods have been felt not only in Cambodia, but also in the neighboring countries – Thailand, Vietnam, and even the Philippines.
Seeing the water rising, I was teasing the director that it was just about the time to start building a submarine. “At night, when all monks fall asleep, I will go for a swim”, he said. Cambodians are funny people. I think it’s great that even in difficult times they don’t lose their spirits and a good sense of humor! When asked if he’s thinking or sinking, one of my former students replied that there was a big “blood” in the town. He meant, of course, the flood. On the other hand, I think no one expected that the water would keep rising for such a long time and that it would have such serious implications. As it was noted on the news, the floods in Thailand were the biggest in over fifty years.
Before going to Cambodia, I had seen this much of water only in the photos that I had found on the Internet. Since the information about the floods was rather limited, I even thought that it was something that I had to expect, when I get there. Initially, I even thought that maybe I should skip October and November and go a bit later. But everything was fine. The streets did get flooded in October 2010, just after my arrival, but it was definitely not as bad as in the following year. I actually even enjoyed seeing much water around. After all, it was very warm and as long as tuk tuk could drive through or I didn’t leave my flip-flops behind, it was really not that bad!
The only unpleasant thing was having to walk along muddy roads. Not very nice! In the evenings, I was teaching at a private university, and the road was extremely bad. When it started raining more and more, I started thinking to myself that it was probably about the time to go home. Most lecturers and the staff of university used to dress very nice and come by cars or motorbikes, but since my guesthouse was just a few minutes away, I used to walk. Having to turn up in the class all wet and, most importantly, covered in mud was not something I fancied. Luckily, a couple of times I got a lift and then I left just in time, before “the great flood” started!
Areas located along the river would get flooded most. In some places, the trees growing along the road would be the only indication of where the river ends and where the road starts. Quite a view! During the flood, the PAGE girls put the bags with sand around the gate to keep water from coming into the house. Some people would get the water out of their yards using electric water pumps, which would increase the water level on the street even more. The kids, however, would have much fun by rowing on the streets in big aluminum bowls. So funny!
For centuries, people have been living in traditional houses built on stilts and there’s definitely been a reason for that. Richer people have started building more modern-looking houses, but they seem to have no elevation from the ground, which is not good news, when the rainy season starts and the floods kick off. The elevation of a new sewing school building was also made just at a last moment, after a volunteer engineer from Canada stepped in. Unfortunately, the elevation was not sufficient and during the floods of the 2011, the ground floor of the building, which cost more than $40,000, was all covered in water. I think local constructors don’t have much experience in such things and foreign companies are perhaps not very used to adapting their technologies to the local environment.
In Cambodia, it really rains cats and dogs, or elephants and giraffes, to be more precise. I hadn’t seen such heavy rain though my entire life! Sometimes the rain would be so strong that it was completely overwhelming – you could neither see, nor hear anything! On the very first day, I figured out that I’d better hide my compact Esprit umbrella before people start laughing at me and buy a proper, “king size” Cambodian umbrella, which was really helpful.
Although it mainly rains during rainy season, occasionally there were some heavy rains in other months as well. Usually, when the temperature went up to +34°C /+36°C, a storm would start. It is good in a way, because it’s really hot, and the rain helps to freshen up the air. However, during storms and heavy rains, the electricity would usually go off and then you would have to stay without light and fan. Having no electricity would mean that the office would have to be closed as no computers would be working and that would have to sleep in such hot weather without a fan, which could be a real disaster. I used to try cooling pads and wet towels, but it was still quite unbearable. I was glad that at least I had a torch.
11. Clothes: dress code – pajamas!
If you are wondering what you should wear during your stay in Cambodia, my advice is to dress modestly and to cover your shoulders and knees, especially when visiting the temples. That is how most of the local people dress. Although occasionally you can see some foreign girls with mini-skirts and popping-out breasts, that does not happen very often and, believe me, doesn’t look very nice either. In fact, it looks a bit stupid. If you want to respect local culture and get the same respect in response, it’s better to dress appropriately.
What exactly to wear is totally up to you. As long as it is not too revealing, you can wear even pajamas! I am not joking. Although I have never seen any foreigner wearing pajamas on the street, many local women do. It looks like they love pajamas. Maybe because they are light, cheap and, in some women’s view, beautiful. Has no one told them that pajamas are supposed to be used only for sleeping? I don’t know whether someone has told them or not, but I think Cambodians are simple people and they don’t make a big fuss about clothing.
Since Cambodians are usually smaller than Western people, most clothes in local markets and shops come in very small sizes. Other than T-shirts with Angkor Wat and popular sayings, such as “No money, no honey” or “Same, same, but different”, I found it very difficult to find anything suitable. The same goes for shoes and even flip-flops. Even if you find something of your size, very likely it will have some ribbons, cartoon characters or other funny decorations. That’s local style and that’s how girls like to dress even when they are older. Therefore it is a good idea to pack a few lightweight T-shirts and pants before travelling. If you are, however, a man, you may find that the choice of shirts, shorts and even footwear is quite reasonable and they come in large sizes too!
Since all around the year, it is quite hot, pullovers and jackets are usually not needed. When I was in Cambodia, there was only about one week, when the weather was little bit cooler and when long sleeves were needed. You do, however, see sometimes Cambodian girls wearing warm jumpers even on hot days. They say that they wear them in order to protect their skin from the sun. Before sitting down on a motorbike, my colleague would sometimes wear a shirt with long sleeves and even gloves. I used to tease her. “Dress up, Lida”, I used to say, “It’s very cold today”.
It can get quite hot in Cambodia, so if you decide to take a swim in the West Barai Lake or the waterfall, then you should be prepared to face another dress code. If again you intend to respect local culture, it is better that you cover your bikini with a light T-shirt and shorts. Local girls are definitely not used to showing too much of their skin. Very often you can see them swimming in jeans and even long-sleeve jumpers! Those, who cannot swim, use big black tires and orange life vests.
Even when there are only girls in the house, they put sarong around the waist when washing themselves and even when changing the clothes. You may think that they are very traditional and old fashioned, but it was not actually always this way. You may be shocked to know that during the Angkor Empire, many women used to walk naked! As a Chinese diplomat Zhou Daguan writes, coming to watch naked girls swimming in the river was one of the major attractions to foreigners. I think it’s quite at odds with how the girls dress today, but it does make much sense after you see all those generous ladies on the stone carvings!
12. Food: Have you eaten rice?
While in Western countries we highly rely on bread and potatoes, in Cambodia daily meals are almost impossible without rice. No surprise that very often instead of the question “Have you eaten lunch?” you can hear “Have you eaten rice?” or instead of “Let’s go for lunch” – “Let’s go to eat rice”. Rice is the most important part of Cambodian diet. For some people, it’s the only food they have.
The climate of Cambodia is suitable for the cultivation of almost all kinds of vegetables, and you can find a wide variety of them in the local markets, but most people don’t grow vegetables. They grow only rice. That’s what they are used to and that’s what they’ve learned from their parents and grandparents. It is a pity because they seem to be missing on rich and balanced diet or even additional income, but I do understand that getting used to new things usually takes time.
Many people also don’t have needed skills for vegetable cultivation. Although fertilization, planting, watering, weeding and harvesting is quite a simple thing to do, for some people, who have never done it before, it may sound as a bird language. Even though LHA had two vegetable gardens, it looked like they too had little idea what growing vegetables meant. The whole concept of vegetable garden was mainly limited to the cultivation of a local vegetable, called Morning Glory. When asked why they didn’t grow other vegetables, such as onions or carrots, the project coordinator told me that they had tried in the past, but it was not successful.
According to his explanation, the leaves of carrots would grow, but the roots not. A natural thought that came to my mind was that they probably never thinned them, but it was actually even worse than that – instead of planting the carrots directly into the soil, they replanted them from a tray. Even though some people like experimenting and sometimes even succeed, believe me, transplanting carrots and other root crops is not such a good idea!
Germans, who were sponsoring the junior high school project, eventually arranged some training on agriculture, but it was not exactly what one would expect. Instead of teaching them some very basic practical skills, such as thinning carrots or watering tomatoes, so that the water does not evaporate so quickly, they started teaching, or I should rather say preaching, about biodynamic agriculture, which is not scientifically proven and which includes such weird things like, for example, burring cow’s manure in a horn. For God’s sake!
Before going to Cambodia, I bought a recipe book of Cambodian dishes. My favorite one was chicken stew with spinach, tomatoes, garlic and chilies and cooked in coconut milk. Very delicious! I did find similar dishes in local restaurants, although when living with local girls, I soon realized that it was not the food that locals would normally eat. Not because it was not delicious or because it was specially made for tourists, but because they couldn’t afford it. The girls would mainly eat rice accompanied with some fried morning glories or water lilies, occasionally make sweet potato or banana flower soup, or fry microscopic-size fish, which didn’t even look like one. Sometimes they would fry eggs, but not very often.
Restaurants are quite nice in Cambodia and, most importantly, very cheap. At a local restaurant, such as Psa Chas, which is in the Old Market, you can have a meal for as little as $1.5. For $3, you can have a generous portion of food at Khmer Kitchen, which is in front of Psa Chas, just a few steps away. These were two restaurants that I used to go for the most of the time. Not because they were the best in the city, but because they were within my budget. However, even if I had more money, sometimes I would have still gone to Khmer Kitchen, because it’s a really nice place and the food is good there, too. Psa Chas is very basic, but some of the dishes were quite delicious there, too.
For lunch, I liked to buy a plate of fresh salad with warm baguette at Cool Corner Pizza, which was near the Old Market, close to the bridge. A nice place for meat lovers is Australian BBQ, not far from the Hotel de la Paix. You can sit in a nice garden and eat as much as you like. Amok Restaurant, which is next to Khmer Kitchen, serves very delicious seafood with green peppers. It’s not the cheapest one (costs around $6.75), but really worth the price. When I started missing a good pizza, I used to go to Swensen’s, which is locatd at the Angkor Trade Center, along the river. A very nice local place is called Soup 89. It’s a restaurant along Wat Bo road, which serves soup. They put a gas stove on your table and then bring as much broth as you need and you can choose your own ingredients to put inside. You can also see similar style at Cambodian BBQ, near the Old Market, where you can taste different kinds of exotic meat. I tried snake and crocodile.
There are definitely many places, where to eat, so you can always discover your own favorites. As far as foreign foods are concerned, the choice is quite limited, but I guess unless you are going to stay in Siem Reap for a longer period of time, it shouldn’t really bother you. You can always find a place selling Western food. There are a few Indian restaurants around the Old Market and also along Sivutha Road. I would say that Indian food is far from what you can expect, for example, in London, but overall it’s quite okay. Near the Old Market, there’s a nice Mexican restaurant, where you can also get some good chips if you do miss them. When you think about it, it’s a bit strange that there’s a Mexican restaurant and no Chinese, but that’s the way it is. Before I left, they also opened a new restaurant selling falafel sandwiches and salads. Sometimes it’s good to try something other than the local food. After eating Khmer food for a long time, you may get really tired of it.
Local food is not only cheap, but also quite healthy, as usually it’s cooked from fresh vegetables with only little bit of oil. Among foreigners, the most popular dishes are Fish Amok, which is cooked in coconut milk and tastes rather mild, fried Morning Glory, fried rice, which I am not a very big fan of, mango and papaya salad, which is spicy and quite delicious, noodle soups, spring rolls, and vegetable stir-fries with meat or without. There are also local soups, such as sour beef soup. My own favorite is Tom Yum soup, which originates from Thailand and which is usually cooked with fish or prawns and loads of spices, such as lemon grass, tamarind, chilies, and lime leaves. I simply love it! I used to cook it many times after coming back from Cambodia. When visiting one girl’s family, I also tried a papaya soup, which I really liked. Unfortunately, I never saw it in any restaurant. And of course, if you are looking for some exotic food, you can always try fried frogs or bugs. Local people seem to quite like them!
Interestingly enough, confectionary is usually not eaten by locals. One of the reasons is that they simply don’t have it! Most cakes and pastries are made from wheat, which doesn’t grow in Cambodia. The only delicacy eaten during festivals is rice cakes fried in banana leaves, although they are not sweet. I tried them, when visiting one monk’s parents’ house. To be honest, I was not impressed. On contrary, it was such a bad taste that I could hardly swallow one peace. Sometimes along the highways they also sell sticky rice in bamboo, but I’m not fond of that either. Some people do like it though.
The only food, which is really sweet and which I used to like very much, was deep fried bananas. So yummy! You can buy them from street vendors, although you don’t see them very often – need to spot the places, where they usually stand. I had a “secret” spot like that for doughnuts – one doughnut costs only 500 riel there. Not always they had them, but when they had, I would always buy more. In Siem Reap, you can buy croissants or spoil yourself with really delicious cakes at Blue Pumpkin, but that’s, of course, French, not local. There are also some bakeries in Siem Reap and especially in Phnom Penh. They sell quite delicious stuff as well.
Local people don’t seem to be very fond of sweet foods, although they probably get plenty of natural sugars from locally grown fruits. There is a great variety of them and they taste much better that those that we usually buy in Europe – much sweeter. Usually I don’t eat watermelons, because they are rather tasteless and don’t fancy oranges and pineapples much, because they are too acid. But not in Cambodia! Even bananas taste completely different there. Also there are many fruits that are completely unheard of, such as dragon fruit, rose apple, or durian. Durian smells horrible and tastes even worse. There are, however, some people, who like it. Some of fruits are extremely strange and have like beans or nuts inside, such as Buddha’s flower fruit. In local markets or Western supermarkets, you can buy bananas, mangos, lychees, dragon fruits, pine apples, coconuts, watermelons, rose apples, star fruits, persimmons, oranges, lemons, apples, pears and some other fruits. The most popular among locals is mango. They usually eat it before fully ripped and with chilly salt, which consists of salt and chilies. That’s quite unusual, but that’s how Cambodians eat most of the fruits.
If you stay in Cambodia for a longer period of time and decide to cook yourself, you can buy vegetables at a local market. They sell potatoes, tomatoes, cucumbers, cabbages, carrots, onions, garlic, mushrooms, paprika, lettuce and almost anything else that you may need. They also sell eggs and meat, but the meat is kept without the fridge and is not protected from flies, so you may like to skip that. You can get other groceries at the Western supermarkets. In Siem Reap, you can buy drinks and snacks at Swensen’s and a few smaller supermarkets. For more serious shopping, you can go to Lucky Mall or Angkor Mall, which are both located not far from the central market. You shouldn’t expect to find ready meals there – other than that, the choice is really good.
When you read travel guides on India, you can see many warnings about foods that you should better avoid – even at the most well-rated restaurants. That doesn’t happen in Cambodia. You can eat almost everything without worrying too much. The only thing, which can make you sick, sometimes, is chicken. There were a few people getting stomach bugs, so after a bit of thinking, another volunteer and I came to conclusion that it must be because of the chicken. When I shared my guesses with one of the local girls, she explained to me that there are two types of chicken used in Cambodia – local one and the one imported from Thailand. She warned me that chicken imported from Thailand should better be avoided, because it has been pumped with various chemicals. How you distinguish one from another is a bit of a mystery. I got sick from chicken at Psa Chas restaurant and Cambodia Backpacker Hostel, but I never got sick from chicken at Khmer Kitchen. It’s up to you to take a risk or not and which places to trust. For example, food at my guest house could not be trusted at all no matter it was chicken or something else. If a place looks dirty, very likely the food will also be cooked with no basic hygiene.
In their homes, people usually don’t have refrigerators. It may seem like a big problem to us, but I think in most cases, not only they don’t a fridge, but also what to put in it, so it’s not such a big problem. They get water from underground using simple metal pumps, similar to those used in Africa. There are many of them in villages, but not all of them are working. It seems that they have been donated by foreign agencies, but once they are broken, there’s no one to fix or replace them. Some people use ceramic filters to make the water suitable for drinking. For cooking, Cambodians usually use clay stoves and coal. The research made in China and some other countries shows that using coal for cooking is very bad for health and reduces the length of life. For eating, people use hands, chop sticks or utensils. As long as there’s food, it probably doesn’t matter how you eat it. Quit often, the food is eaten, while sitting on the floor or mats.
13. Health: hypoglycemia, meningitis or hysteric crisis?
Health system in Cambodia is rather poor. Foreigners, who get ill, are advised to go to a private health center, such as NAGA International Clinic, or, if things get really bad, return home. Before leaving to Cambodia, make sure you have necessary vaccines and health insurance. Maybe the risk of getting ill is not very high, but once you catch some nasty disease, you may end up regretting it for the rest of your life.
Local people, when they get ill, usually treat themselves with medicine bought at local pharmacies. Most of it, however, is said to be fake – made from flower, sugar and, only God knows, what else. Foreigners are usually advised to buy their medicine at U-Care, which is a Western pharmacy. At U-Care, you can find medicines, mosquito sprays, toiletries and most of other basic necessities related to health and hygiene. The staff is usually very friendly, so don’t be afraid to ask.
Siem Reap is not in a zone of malaria risk, but some other parts of Cambodia are, so better check with a map. If you are staying at a private house, you can buy a mosquito net at a local market. Hotels and guest houses usually have an A/C or a fan in the room and place a mosquito protector on windows, in which case a mosquito net is not needed. It’s always good to carry a spray in your bag, when you go to visit the temples or go out for dinner in the evening, because mosquitos tend to be quite nasty at this time.
HIV is very prevalent in Cambodia, so you should bear that in mind. It is among the highest in Asia and spreads mainly through sex trade. Although there were claims that Siem Reap had been cleaned from prostitution and that its brothels had been closed, prostitution still exist. During my stay, the police raided one of the main karaoke bars and found about 80 girls working there and still there are a few places left that look quite doggy. After 9pm or 10pm, you can also see some prostitutes waiting for customers near the bridge, just a few steps away from the Old Market and Pub Street, where the police is patrolling. That shows that the authorities tend to turn a blind eye on the problem and are happy to have prostitutes working almost in front of their eyes.
Apart from buying medicine from local pharmacies, Cambodian people still practice some traditional remedies passed on from generation to generation. One of such practices is coining, which is performed by rubbing the skin with a coin, a small metal cap, or scratching by nails. From first sight, a person, who has undergone such a procedure, may look like a victim of physical abuse or like having some serious skin disease. The skin is covered by large patches of dark red skin. According to Cambodians, at first, it’s not pleasant, but later becomes okay. They use coining to treat headaches, colds and other kind of aches.
They believe it really helps, although they are not able to explain, how it works or where such practice comes from. From what I read, it comes from China and may have started as early as around 220 AD. It is also well-known in neighboring Vietnam and Indonesia. Such practice is based on a belief that there are cold and hot winds in our bodies, also known as Yin and Yang, that a disease is caused by the imbalance of these winds and that rubbing helps the excess of the hot winds to escape the body through the skin. In China, coining is known under the name of Gua Sha and is related to another traditional practice – fire cupping, which actually my own mother would use on me to treat bronchitis, when I was a child.
During my stay in Cambodia, I got an impression that people are not very good at distinguishing minor ailments from serious and life-threatening diseases and that doctors are not good at it either. Although even if they knew the difference, it is not very likely that they would be able to do much about it. There is no needed equipment and no adequately trained staff. Although Angkor Hospital for Children seems to be doing quite well, the situation in other medical institutions is pretty dim. No wonder that, along with other factors, the mortality in Cambodia is so high.
One of the girls was a bit rebellious. That was mainly because she was a teenager and also because, according to some accounts, she could have been sexually abused in the past and still suffering from it. Whatever the case, what is in, let’s say, Britain understood as a typical teenage behavior, in Cambodia can be considered by some as mental disability. I think it’s really good that most teenagers are behaving themselves and don’t have any tantrums, but at the same time, it’s a bad thing, because people simply don’t understand it and, it looks like, are not even willing to understand.
So this poor girl, instead of being provided with social and psychological counseling or at least a safe environment, where she could start openly talking about things that were bothering her, was taken to a hospital and diagnosed with Schizophrenia. I know what you might be thinking and you are absolutely right – it’s really awful! To be honest, I got quite happy, when I found out that the girl refused to take the prescribed medicine. God knows what that medicine was! Even though she was not mentally retarded yet, she could well become after taking it! And she was not the only one, whose diagnosis was “a bit” doggy.
When one of the PAGE girls got ill with Meningitis, she was not treated for a few weeks. Although she was taken to hospital with serious symptoms (high fever, terrible headaches, weakness, dizziness, and vomiting) and deteriorating condition, no one took her case serious. When I insisted that they write a diagnosis for her, they told that she had a hypoglycemia, i.e. the lack of sugar in blood. “Go home, eat food and everything will be okay”, they said.
I was really worried about her. When she was still not feeling better and one day collapsed on the floor, I decided to take her to a private health center and do some tests. The doctor, who examined her, confirmed that her condition was very serious. While waiting for the test results to come back from Phnom Penh, the girl was taken to hospital again. She was in terrible pain. There were maybe eight nurses standing at one side of the room and maybe three doctors sitting in another one. Despite that, no one moved even a finger to help her.
When I went to talk to them and almost begged that they make a spinal fluid test, one of the doctors said: “Maybe she has encephalitis. Maybe Meningitis. Maybe tumor. But I think no. Many women in Cambodia are simply psychotic.” I couldn’t believe my own airs, but he was nice enough to repeat it for me. “Some women are crazy”, he explained, “They have problem with their head”. After one and half hours, they finally agreed to put a drip and give her some pain-killers. That was already an achievement. Three days later, they made a spinal fluid test and confirmed that she had Meningitis.
The doctor told the girl’s family that they had to buy medicine for her. When I asked a nurse, what medicine was needed, she told me that the hospital had all the needed medicine and that we didn’t need to buy anything. When the same doctor found out about it, he approached the family and told them not to tell anyone that he had asked them to buy medicine, because he would get into trouble. It was a very expensive medicine, costing $25 per day. Neither the girl’s aunt, nor the father had such money, so her teacher raised some money at school and gave to them. But the money soon finished.
When I went to a pharmacy to check what that medicine was, I found out that it was not even related to Meningitis. It was a strong medicine used to treat only a limited number of diseases and accompanied with a warning that even after stopping taking it, it may result in life-long disabilities. That didn’t sound right to me, so, after consulting with a friend specialist and also double-checking the information on the Internet, I wrote down the name of the medicine used for the treatment of Meningitis and showed it to the doctor. He confirmed that it was for the treatment of Meningitis and explained that it consisted of two ingredients, one of which they had at hospital and the other one that the family was asked to buy. That was, of course, not true. The next time, I went to the pharmacy and bought it myself. It was just over $2. The doctor didn’t seem to be happy and started mumbling that it was probably from China and therefore not of a good quality. When I still insisted that it was from a Western pharmacy and imported from the UK, finally he asked me: “Are you a doctor? Where are you from?”
I remember once in the past, I was also asked if I was a lawyer, but I’m neither a doctor, nor a lawyer. I’m just a caring person, who feels responsible for a person, who is suffering and who’s nevertheless is being used as a means to cash someone’s pocket. I have seen such cases before. There is much corruption among doctors in Lithuania. When my mother was waiting for a brain surgery, she gave a considerable amount of money to the doctor, who was going to perform it. He instantly put the money into his pocket and told her that she should also give some money to the head of the department, because he was going to use his instruments. He was an educated and good looking man, but that day he fell very low in my eyes. We had big debts and couldn’t even afford proper food. How can some people be so egoistic and insensible?
After being hospitalized for three times, the girl was taken to the same hospital again. Despite the severity of her pain, doctors were reluctant to accept her and threatened that if she didn’t stop crying, they were going to put her in the psychiatric department. I asked an American doctor, who was volunteering at Angkor Hospital for Children, to come and visit her. He came with one of his local colleagues. When they checked the diagnostic notes, they saw that the girl’s condition had been labeled as “Hysteric Crisis”. It’s amazing how within such a short period of time and with exactly the same symptoms, each time she was ending up in a different building and a different diagnosis!
If you are wondering, how this story finally ended, my answer would be, it hasn’t. When I left Cambodia, the girl was still getting the same symptoms again and again. My mother actually had very similar symptoms, and it took doctors over fifty years to find the reason. According to their words, if they made the surgery just a day or two later, the cerebrospinal fluid could have started leaking and she would have died. Good news for my mother, but not very good news for the girl.
As you remember, I am not a doctor, but I think that she might be suffering from what is called Recurrent Meningitis, which tends to repeat. Just like brain tumor in my mother’s case, Recurrent Meningitis is usually caused by a past trauma. When doctor’s asked my mother if she had had any head injury in her childhood, she said no, but later, when another woman, who also had a brain tumor, told her that it was due to a bicycle accident, my mother finally remembered that once she had also fallen off the bicycle and injured herself. Even though later in life it never caused any problems, or at least she thought so, for the first week or so, half of her face was black.
When I asked the girl if she had had any serious accident before, I didn’t expect that she would say, yes, but she actually did. She clearly remembered the day, when she was riding a bicycle, was hit by a motorbike and hurt her head. A coincidence, you say? It’s not for me to decide. Her mother also had a motorbike accident, after which she started feeling bad and later died. There are many motorbikes in Cambodia and many accidents. People are driving without any license, rules or even helmets.
Unfortunately, I was not a doctor, and there was no one, who could help the girl or at least give her a clear answer. I was told that there was a computer scan available at the Royal Angkor International Hospital, but there was no person, who was competent enough to make an interpretation. I hope her health improves, although if it doesn’t, I will be ready to make further steps to help her. I believe that if you really want to help someone, there is always some way to do that. I think the poverty is a big problem, but people’s lack of responsibility and compassion is even worse!
As one refugee girl once correctly noted, education is light, and light bills need to be paid! Cambodia is not an exception. Many children don’t go to school, because their families cannot afford it or because the nearest school is too far to be walked to. No surprise that many boys decide to become monks, so that they can get education for free.
Although those, who can afford going to school, are in a much better position, it doesn’t mean that by attending school they learn much. I think it’s far from that. Classrooms are usually overcrowded, having sixty or even hundred students. From what I was told, I got an impression that all Cambodian students do is sit in the classroom and listen to their teacher or copy the text from the board into their notebooks. It looks like public school is not the place, where you can expect to do practical exercises and thus prepare for exams – for this purpose you need to get a private tutor.
Interestingly enough, the prestige of having a private tutor is so big that teachers automatically raise students’ grades if they are known to be attending private classes. At least that’s what I was told by the girls. Having any grade written must be considered as an achievement, because that doesn’t seem to be a routine practice either. When I had to provide a travel agency sponsoring three children with their study results, it was easier said than done. Usually weeks and months had to pass until I could get a glimpse of at least one number and a record book (if there was one) had to be copied with most of its pages being completely empty. If even that was not a teacher’s responsibility, what was then?
The lack of qualified teachers and their poor preparation is definitely a serious issue. It is not uncommon to see teachers working at school even though they have not even completed one! No wonder that when I used to talk to the girls at PAGE or my students at university, it seemed as if though they have come from another planet! They had no idea where humans had come from, whether the Earth rotated around the Son or vice versa, or what was going on with all those confusing directions called North, South, West and East.
The teacher, who later replaced me, was surprised to know that I was teaching them more than just English. I would be much more surprised if she didn’t! The textbook was American, but they had even absolutely no clue, where the U.S. or even an American continent was! They had to read about Native Americans, chimneys, classical music, and indigenous tribes, but they had have absolutely no clue what on Earth it was! There is a saying that it is important to know many languages, but it’s even more important to have what to say in them! And really, how can you learn something, which you have absolutely no clue about?
“Where is the U.S.?” I used to ask. What is a Native American? Why American people are white? What language do they speak? Where do they come from? Why did they go to the U.S.? Why are there black people in the U.S.? Where do they come from? Why did they go to the U.S.? After a series of similar questions, we used to get a logical picture of what was what and then we were ready to move on. When a few lessons later, the same expression appeared, I asked them again. I showed to them how a chimney looked like and what its purpose was. I brought CDs and played them different kinds of music, so that they could get at least a taste of what they were reading about.
When I saw that the whole one unit was devoted to the indigenous tribes and cultures of the world, I got very happy. That was one of my favorite topics! I had previously asked my boyfriend to bring the DVD of “Tribe” with Bruce Parry, so now I was hoping that I could use university’s projector and show at least a couple of episodes to my students. Alas, I was told that the projector was not intended for the use during English classes and my requests were simply ignored. I did, however, borrow a book donated by one of our volunteers and brought it to my students, so that at least they can see how a Native American looked like. You should have seen their reaction, when I showed them the book! One student jumped up from his seat excited: “Can I borrow this book? Can I make a copy? I so much want to read it!” You are disappointed in student’s lack of interest and motivation? Not me!
Before I left Cambodia, I told one donor that it would be nice to buy some books for the PAGE girls to read and I also posted a wish list on the website with some of the needed titles. I was very happy to find out that the donor was willing to buy the books and that volunteers brought the needed titles even sooner than I realized that! I was amazed at how simple it was. I was getting more and more convinced that we should try to open a public library at the Foreign Language School, where students, teachers and monks could get a free access to educational books in English and maybe even use a computer. I was simply thrilled by the idea and very confident that it would work out, but unfortunately my time in Cambodia was over and I didn’t have an opportunity to make it happen.
There are no libraries in Cambodia. The only libraries that I know are the National Library of Cambodia and the Center for Khmer Studies. The Center for Khmer Studies is actually located in Wat Damnak, just a few steps from the LHA office and next to the Foreign Language School. Each year, they renew their lists and add up to 500 new titles, but they are all mainly about Cambodia. I think it would be great if there was another library with books about geography, physics, chemistry, biology, English, health, agriculture and other subjects, which would help students to prepare for lessons and also provide general knowledge.
Even though the quality of education in Cambodia is very poor, it doesn’t mean that the students are lazy or that they don’t want to lean. On contrary, I think they are interested in learning and they seem to be naturally curious. Because they are very simple and warm people, it is quite easy to connect to them and to earn respect for your work, unless, of course, you hate your job and hate your students, but in that case, you simply shouldn’t be teaching.
At university, one of the tutors used to say that she hates her students and that she cannot control them. I didn’t pity her, because I thought she was really bad tempered. I had four different classes and never had any incidents. My former students would call my name and wave to me from the other side of the corridor and my current students would say that I was the best teacher that they had ever had. That was, of course, very sweet, but I know that I earned it by hard work and positive attitude and not by some lucky chance. I wish I have done even more for them!
In Cambodia, there are two types of universities – state and private. Private ones usually have a better reputation and teach in English. From the top five universities – Royal University of Phnom Penh, The University of Cambodia, Cambodian Mekong University, Pannasastra University of Cambodia, and Build Bright University – only Royal University of Phnom Penh is run by the government. All others, including Pannasastra University of Cambodia, where I was teaching for a few months, are privately funded.
While high school students are expected to pay for their uniforms and apparently for their exam papers, university students should pay their tuition fees. The fees vary based on university and program and usually start from about two hundred dollars per semester, which is perhaps not big money for us, but big money for Cambodians. Officially, before enrolling into a program, students should pass an entry exam, which consists of English exam and general knowledge exam, but in reality students are usually accepted few times a year and can start studying as soon as they pay the fees.
15. Festivals and celebrations
On the first day that I arrived at LHA, I was told that I was actually going to start working only a week later, because the festival of Pchum Ben (Ancestor’s Day) was about to begin. During this festival, people bring food and gifts to monks and ask to prey for their deceased relatives. Similar celebrations are known all around the world. In my home country as well as many other European countries, it is common to pay respect to the spirits of the deceased relatives by visiting their graves, cleaning the gravesite, putting some flowers, lidding the candles and saying a prayer. It is actually a nice tradition and seeing thousands of candles flowing in the darkness and crowds of people standing in silence is a truly impressive sight.
Having about a week off was quite good news, since I had more time to look around, to buy necessary things and settle down. After working at LHA for longer time, I did, however, realize that long and frequent public holidays were quite common there. It looked as if though as soon as one festival ended and you got back into the working routine, another festival was about to begin. In this way, there was time neither to get bored, nor tired!
It does not however, mean that Cambodians are lazy or that they do not want to work. On contrary, I think Cambodians are quite hard-working people. Most people do farming, which is not an easy thing to do and many people living in the cities maintain a couple of jobs to feed their family. There tend to be more holidays towards the beginning and the end of the year, so the working routine towards the middle of the year becomes quite intense again and while the total number of non-working days becomes quite impressive usually it is the only holiday that people get. Either these days are deducted from an annual holiday or there’s no annual holiday at all. Public schools work even on Saturdays and some private classes run all throughout the week including Sundays.
In Cambodia, not only there are many festivals, but also there are even three New Year celebrations – Khmer New Year, Chinese New Year, and Western New Year. During Khmer New Year, monks make big sand mounds. When asked what their purpose was, my colleague explained that the size of each mound represented the amount of good deeds that the person had done in the previous year. On the Internet, I read however, that these mounds represent the stupa, where Buddha’s hair and diadem are buried. The big stupa is surrounded by four small ones which are built for the four favorite Buddha’s disciples. During Khmer New Year various games are played and houses are decorated with big multi-color stars.
I was taken with a couple of other volunteers to the director’s homeland. In front of the temple, there was a big celebration with many food vendors, games, such as having your eyes covered and hitting a hanging clay pot with a stick, fun-fair for children, dances and, of course, the sand mounds. It was very strange to see such an event happening on the grounds of the temple. It was very crowded and the music was playing loud. First, there were traditional dances and then the music suddenly changed and the whole place turned into a Western disco!
During Christmas and New Year time, the supermarkets and other places are decorated and Christmas trees are led. Since I saw how fascinated the girls were to see a decorated Christmas tree (they are very beautiful, aren’t they?), I decided to buy one for the PAGE house and suggest to the girls that we make nice decorations ourselves. Even though the director was not very happy with such initiative, the girls were jumping out of excitement. Later we played some games and cooked some nice meals.
Apart from New Year, another important celebration is Water festival. If you are a regular viewer of the world news, you have probably already heard of it. The world heard about the Water festival as well as Cambodia after a terrible accident in Phnom Penh in November 2010, when over 300 people were killed in a stampede. As people were watching the race of the boats, the bridge got overcrowded and some people fell into the river. As they were trying to climb back onto the bridge they grabbed some electric cables and were electrocuted. This caused even more panic in the crowd and people started escaping from the place by pushing each other and stepping over people, who have fallen down on the ground.
I participated in the Water festival, which took place in Siem Reap. Luckily, no incidents happened there. I am not a big fan of boat race or any other kind of sports, but I quite enjoyed the whole atmosphere, food vendors and hanging out with the girls. The festival is well known not only for its boat race, but also for another important event. Around this time, the Tonle Sap River changes its direction and starts flowing out of the lake. In a few months’ time, when rain fills the river with much water it would change its direction again and would start flowing back into the rake, making it expand beyond its borders. Due to this effect, sometimes the floating villages look like normal villages and sometimes they become completely surrounded by water. It is a truly amazing natural phenomenon!
A rather strange part of the Water Festival is Sampeah Preah Khae, or “moon praying” ceremony. It is actually, a pagan ceremony, which is performed at the full moon. During one of such ceremonies, which took place in front of Angkor Thom Junior High School, fires were lid. Rice was fried on fire, pounded with giant sticks and sieved to remove the husks. Later traditional dances were performed. At the end of the event, a special honor was paid to the moon by offering some bananas and rice. At this time, thanks is usually given to land, water and environment, rain for the coming year predicted and prayers made for a good harvest. It looked like a very old pagan tradition, and it was rather strange to see Buddhist monks organize it! A boat race which is a tradition that originates from 12th century military exercise, pagan moon worship and Buddhism – what a strange combination!
Outside of national festivals, two of the most important family celebrations are wedding and funeral. Usually you can understand that there is a wedding or a funeral nearby by hearing the music. To be honest, in the beginning, I could not quite distinguish, which one was for wedding and which one was for funeral. You can always recognize a wedding site by its elaborate decorations. Very often, the entrance would have heart-shape decorations and the portraits of the groom and the bride. You can also see chairs and tables inside of the tent and some girls with colorful dresses and excessive make up.
A couple of my colleagues got married, while I was in Cambodia, but the invitations arrived very late, when I had already made my plans for a holiday in Thailand and Singapore, so I didn’t go. A couple of other volunteers, who attended the wedding, said that most of the food was quite strange (clearly not to their taste) and that nothing much was going on apart from that, so I guess I didn’t miss much. I had watched a wedding ceremony in Cambodian Cultural Village, but the presenter was talking in Khmer, so it was quite difficult to understand what was going on. The bride was sitting in front of her parents, holding a yellow umbrella and feeding banana to them. Then they had some white powder put on their faces. I think I got the same powder thrown through the car window, when we were passing a crowd of people in a village, who were carrying a weird “money tree”, making loud noises and trying to raise some money in order to open a new school or something. Another volunteer suggested that it could have been baby powder.
In Cambodia, wedding is a very important tradition. It is actually so important that even poor families are prepared to spend as much as $4,000-5,000. That is huge money in Cambodia. You definitely need much money to rent a mobile tent and buy food or book a restaurant, but much money is also spent on the bride’s dresses. By saying “dresses” instead of “dress”, I did not make a mistake, because it is a tradition in Cambodia that during the wedding the bride should change at least ten dresses! Such tradition comes from China and dresses come in different colors, each having its own symbolic meaning, such as bringing success, etc. Many years after the wedding, the photos of nicely groomed couple would hang on the wall as if trying to keep nice memories alive and bringing a peace of a fairy-tale into very mundane and fortuneless household.
16. Places of interest
Each year, around two million tourists come to Cambodia. Most of them come to see Angkor Wat and other ancient temples. According to one of my students, Angkor Wat is one of the Seven Wonders of the World. It is, of course, not true. It is a very impressive place and a very valuable treasure in the history of human civilizations, but that doesn’t make it one of the Seven Wonders of the World! As you may know, from the Seven Wonders of the World, only the Great Pyramid of Giza is still standing. All other ancient wonders were destroyed. If you search, however, for the list of 100 most beautiful places in the world, you will see that Angkor Wat is also there.
So what makes this place so special? Well, first of all, if you have seen some films about mysterious town being found hidden in the jungle and if you have been wondering if such place really exists, you should definitely visit Angkor or, I should better say, the lost city of Angkor – the former habitat of one of the biggest civilizations in the world. During its golden years, the city had a population of as much as 1 million, while London at that time had only 30,000! It is very impressive, is it not? Now how about the fact that it was built in less than 40 years and that now, even with the help of modern technologies, 300 years would be needed to complete the construction? As many other world-famous projects, it required much manual labor including slaves and another important component – belief.
If you have a strong belief and you work hard, the success is almost guaranteed. It is a simple, yet very valuable formula, which you can find in many personal development books and which is often hides between the lines of many historical achievements. According to the words of the Bible, “… if you had faith even as small as a mustard seed, you could say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it would move. Nothing would be impossible.”
If your belief is related to something very powerful and eternal, something transcendent the boundaries of this physical and mortal world, you have a great power in your hands, which can make miracles and turn a piece of simple rock into magnificent monuments. The ancient city of Angkor is a good example. So are the pyramids of Egypt and many other constructions which are hard to believe to have been made by human hands. They look more as if they were made by gods, and that could be, at least partially, true.
Cleopatra, the last Pharaoh of Ancient Egypt, believed that she was the incarnation of Egyptian goddess, Isis, and Suryavarman II, the creator of Angkor Wat, believed that he was a human incarnation of Hindu God Vishnu. Did they really possess some divine powers? That is something that we probably will never find out, but one thing is clear – even if calling yourself a god was only a strange fashion of the time, we must admit that it was a very powerful and convincing one!
So what happened that such a great civilization eventually declined and the great city of Angkor had to be abandoned? Although for a long time it was not clearly known what the reasons were, it is now thought that the death of Angkor civilization, just like many other great civilizations of the world, was triggered by overpopulation. Having to feed an increasing number of people, they started expanding rice fields by clearing the surrounding jungle, thus eliminating a natural protection against floods, having a fertile layer of soil washed away and a complex system of water canals damaged. Recent research shows that the situation could have been exacerbated by a climate change resulting in prolonged droughts, one of which could have lasted up to three decades, and heavy monsoon rains that followed after. With a sharp decline in harvests and the spread of infectious diseases, Khmer Empire weakened and was a good target for Thai neighbors, who used an opportunity to attack it and subjugate. Sounds little bit sad, but at the same time it gives a good lesson for future generations and a warning of what could happen if we don’t address the problems of the overpopulation and global warming in time and we continue disrupting the natural balance of nature.
About a hundred years later, another king, Ang Chan, was hunting in the jungle and stumbled upon a big wall that was standing exactly on his way. Since he could neither walk around it, nor break it, he called his soldiers. Until the 19th century, however, the world knew very little about the lost city of Angkor and even doubted that it really existed. Only when a French naturalist, Henri Mouhot, made very detailed pictures of Angkor and brought them back to France it was brought into public attention, and soon after, the restoration work started.
In a way, I envy Henri Mouhot or even Ang Chan, because they were first to see the lost city in all its beauty, while mysteriously intertwined with the surrounding jungle. Although Ta Prohm temple, where Angelina Jolie did her filming, remains largely untouched, other temples have had the jungle cleared, in my opinion, with too much precision. I think some of its charm has been irreversibly lost. In somewhat way, it is deprived of its spirit and brought into the modern times without any sense of creativity. In my opinion, either it should look more like it used to look in the Angkor Empire, like a lost city in the jungle, or maybe even a combination of both. One way or another it should be brought to life!
I think quite a successful attempt to showcase local culture is Cambodian Cultural Village, which is an open air museum, located on the way to the airport, on the National Highway 6. It features local architecture and uses professional actors to show traditional dances, ceremonies, and performances. The program seems to be well organized and having some of the members of the audience get engaged in the action works really well! The only shortcoming, I thought, was that all performances were in Khmer. There was, for example, a funny man making jokes during a wedding ceremony, but I couldn’t understand a word of what he was talking about, nor I could properly understand what was going on.
Another interesting place to visit is silk farms. My grandmother had looms at home and used to weave beautiful bed covers, but I had never seen how a cloth is made from silk warms. They are actually fed with green leaves and later placed into big round baskets, where they start turning into yellow cocoons. The cocoons are then put into water and boiled so that the tread can be unraveled. The rest of the process is more or less the same like in normal cloth making, such as spinning treads, dying, and weaving. The visit to the factory was quite informative, but at the same time it made me wonder why people were prepared to pay so much money for a piece of cloth and have so many caterpillars killed. I think all living beings, no matter how small they are, deserve to live. Do you not think so?
Another place that I enjoyed visiting was the floating village of Kampong Phluk on Tonle Sap Lake. It looked somewhat surreal. The village is very isolated and little bit feels as if though you were stepping back in time or into some old movie. All houses have been built on stilts. Some of them are as high as ten meters! When the water level rises, the only way to reach school or even your neighbor is by boat. When we went to the village, the water level had little bit dropped, so we could walk through the village along the road. It was covered with fishing nets and thousands of crevettes – for drying. The village is surrounded by a flooded jungle. Normally you don’t see it, because it’s under water! When we were going by boat, only the tops of the trees were seen above water. They looked more like bushes and were so close to both sides of the boat that we had to make sure we did not keep our heads out of the boat. It looked as if though we were going along a narrow river!
My favorite place in Cambodia was probably the waterfall on Kulen Mountain. Located about an hour drive from Siem Reap and surrounded by the jungle, it is a wonderful place to relax and have a swim. It has not been spoiled by development yet and, when we were there, there were only a few people – mainly locals. There is a good picnic spot on the way, so you can bring your friends or family and enjoy some meals together.
Another interesting place on the mountain is the river of 1,000 lingas, where the bottom of the river is covered with stone carvings representing the motives of Hindu mythology. Some people have picnics there as well. Finally the last place is a temple with the statue of reclining Buddha. There are quite strange things going on around the temple. Local people are selling animal bones, which thy can use for treatment.
There is a weird elderly man sitting in one of the shelters. He is wearing white robes and has a big turban on his head. On the top of the turban you can see his hair sticking out, which looks like Polish plait – a horribly entangled hair formation. When asked why his hair was like that, the man explained that his hair was difficult to brush and that he could not cut it either, because then he would get ill. What a weirdo!
If you want to make your dreams come true, you can take some magical water from a stone or you can ask for bliss from a Buddhist monk, whose body is all covered in tattoos and who seems to be living a small house inside of the rocks. If you have infertility or sexuality problems, you can wash your hands or face with the water taken from a phallus-shape basin. Overall, the place is a strange mixture of witchcraft, Buddhism and, God knows, what else!
Having my favorite places around Siem Reap covered, now let us look little bit around in Phnom Penh. I went there with the PAGE girls and one of the partner NGOs. We visited the Royal Palace, Wat Phnom temple, National Museum of Cambodia, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, and walked little bit along the river. The Royal Palace is probably less impressive than in Bangkok, but still very nice. So is the building of the National Museum of Cambodia and its courtyard. The temple and the riverbank are also nice.
Toul Sleng Museum was a very different experience. I did not feel very comfortable being there and I was definitely horrified by the methods of torture that were used during Khmer Rouge regime, but that’s, unfortunately, an important part of Cambodian history. Overall, the trip was very good, especially for the girls, who had never been to Phnom Penh before! They were fascinated by the height of the buildings, the size of the supermarkets and almost everything else. I guess, at times, it was more interesting to watch their faces than what was outside of the window!
The last place on my travel list was a seaside town of Sihanoukville. People say that it is relatively under-developed and that it has some of the best beaches in Cambodia. I really quite wanted to go there, but unfortunately, I am not a big fan of long bus trips: I have motion sickness, low blood pressure and previously broken leg, so having to sit in a hot bus for about ten hours could be a quite challenging experience. Besides, when I started teaching at university, my schedule became quite tight – no time for backpacking!
17. Traveling in the region
I love travelling. Although my main purpose of going to Cambodia was volunteering, during my stay, I wanted to take a short holiday and visit at least a couple of neighboring countries. I had always wanted to visit Thailand and especially its nice beaches, so I decided to go to Phuket, Krabi and Bangkok. I also decided to go to Singapore, as I thought that it would be interesting to visit a Chinese speaking country and one of the so-called Asian Tigers, especially because it was the only country apart from Malaysia, which had cheap flights from Siem Reap!
In Singapore, I met my boyfriend, who came from England to spend a holiday with me and one of his friends, who had just started a new job there. I’m not sure if I would like to stay in Singapore for a longer time, but during the time that I was there, I really liked it. We got actually lucky, because the city was decorated for the upcoming Chinese New Year, so it looked very beautiful and had a special atmosphere to it. We enjoyed going by a cable car to Sentosa Island, walking in the China Town and trying various local foods. Yum!
Although I did enjoy my time in Thailand, I would say that I was not as impressed as I expected. I guess I was a bit disappointed to see that the beaches were not significantly better than in the Canary Islands, well except perhaps from the fact that the water in Thailand was much warmer. It was actually so warm that you could straight away go into the water and get wet without even noticing it. As I do not like swimming in cold or even cool water, it was a real paradise for me. We went to some of the islands, did canoeing with a funny man from Jamaica, and overall it was quite a good experience. All those rocky islands, caves and lagoons are very beautiful.
When we arrived to Bangkok, I was surprised to see how big it was. When going from the airport by a taxi, it seemed as if though there was no end to it. Another surprise was that it was not only very big, but also very packed and crowded. When you stand in a metro station, you can almost see what people are doing in their apartments. Buildings are so close to each other, that there is no room even to swing a cat. Good for the cat, but not sure if it is very good for people, who need to live like that!
Bangkok is a rather modern city, although from time to time, you can see some run-down areas and slums as well. We visited the Grand Palace, Wat Phra Kaew, or the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, and had a private boat trip of the old canals. I am sure that there were many other interesting places to see, but unfortunately we did not have time for that.
I guess what I do not like about Thailand is that it attracts many low morale people. In Bangkok, when you go out in the evening, you can see many prostitutes lined up by the street and waiting for their customers. Both in Bangkok and Phuket, we have seen some young girls taken away by very old men, who can hardly walk and have a hearing device attached to their ear. I do not think I would like to live in such a place. I think I could only live there if I worked for some NGO, which helps to take such girls from the street and integrate them back into society. I just cannot see so many people living in filth and having their lives and personalities destroyed. It is heartbreaking.
Finally, on my way back to England, I stopped for a bit in Kuala Lumpur. My friend, who lives there, used to tell me that it was not worth going to Malaysia, because there was nothing interesting to see there. But I had to change my flight either in Singapore or Kuala Lumpur and I had already been in Singapore, so I chose to make a stop-over in Malaysia.
To be honest the city did not impress me much. It reminded me of Singapore little bit, although seemed to be less crowded and having more empty spaces. Like in Singapore, I probably enjoyed most walking and eating in the China Town and visiting the central market, which is full of many beautiful things from all around the world. I love places like that!
Actually, while eating my dinner at the Chinese market, something interesting happened. A couple of Buddhist monks approached me trying to sell some bracelets. I was quite surprised to see monks walking around the town so late and selling stuff. It turned out that I had been suspicious for a good reason. When I met my Malaysian friend, she explained that they were not monks and just pretending in order to get money! When I started taking pictures of an elderly man, dressed in a monk’s robe and selling bracelets, he quickly started walking away. A very interesting business!
18. Security: the country with 10 million land mines
I think that for both tourists and volunteers, one thing, which is very important, is security. For me, it was one of the main factors when choosing a country for volunteering, especially because I was a girl and because I was travelling to a very far country, for a very long time and completely on my own. Although I consider myself quite a brave person, after being kidnapped by a taxi driver in India, I didn’t want to take any more chances!
Although initially I was a bit nervous and did not really know what to expect, Cambodia turned out to be a very safe country. I could not even think that something bad could happen to me. In the evenings, I was teaching at university, so many times I would walk home after 9pm or 10pm, but I never experienced any incidents, even though some of the streets were completely dark. I never had any incidents with the drivers either. On contrary, some of them became my good friends and would always stop to chat with me on the street.
Before leaving to Cambodia, I read many forums, and everyone, including women travelling or living in the country, was claiming that it was very safe. I got an impression that it was perhaps a bit less safe in the capital and I read that there had been some incidents, when NGO workers would get attacked while getting the money from an ATM, but I stayed in Phnom Penh for too short to be able to comment on that. It does look more crowded and active in comparison to Siem Reap, although I think it should still be much safer than Delhi or even Bangkok.
Although the crime rate in Siem Reap seems to be very low, it does exist – just like anywhere else in the world, well, except perhaps from some Arabic countries, where crime rate is close to zero. We had to lock our bicycles, because they had been stolen in the past, and during holidays, someone even tried to break into the office. One volunteer had her handbag grabbed by a man passing on a motorbike. The worst crime that I heard of while living in Siem Reap was the rape and slaughter of women, who happened to live not far from the PAGE boarding house. That definitely does not sound very encouraging, but I can assure you that it is not as bad as it may sound. There are still many people sleeping with their doors unlocked, not to mention that some people do not have any door at all! In my opinion, as long as you do not take any unnecessary risks and do not step on an unexploded landmine, you should be fine!
I was of course kidding – landmines are probably the last thing that you should worry about. Although there are about 10 million of landmines left and although it is one of the most land-mined countries in the world, all of them are way beyond the reach of tourists (or volunteers for that matter) and don’t pose any threat. Any guess, what is the most land-mined country in the world? It is Egypt! The number of land mines in Egypt is more than a double of that in Cambodia but that does not stop the tourists spending their vacations there, does it? Most of them probably even do not know that they are there!
Most of the land mines are deep in the jungle and although they do affect some local people, who are short of land and move to the new fields before they are clean, you can visit all places of interest without any fear. During my stay in Cambodia no one even mentioned landmines as if they didn’t even exist. Official sources claim that land mines are completely removed in Siem Reap, and I guess there is no reason not to believe that. They have been removed by a local man Aki Ra, who actually had to put them during the war, when he was a child. Later, he started neutralizing them and even opened a landmine museum, which you can visit on your way to Banteay Srey temple. There are also some NGOs, who search for the mines and neutralize them. Unfortunately, it is a very slow and expensive process. Maybe those, who have left them, should come back and collect them? That would be nice! Do you not think so?
19. Politics: the price of development
Although at university I studied politics, during my stay in Cambodia, it was one of the last things on my mind. I was more interested in learning about Cambodian culture and developing my skills in NGO management. There are, however, a few interesting aspects of Cambodian political discourse, which have come to my attention and which I am willing to share with you.
In Cambodia, as in most developing countries, one of the main political problems is corruption. I was told that if you want to become a police officer or a teacher, you might need to pay as much as $2,000. If you want to pass a national exam or secure a contract, you need to pay as well. Sometimes you get an impression that no single movement can be made without having to bribe someone and that it is not even worth trying!
I do believe that corruption is a serious problem in Cambodia, but I think that sometimes people tend to exaggerate. For example, so far, all PAGE girls have successfully passed their exams and have been admitted to universities. One girl started teaching at school just after completing one and another one became a teacher from as early as grade five! My students working at the government and NGOs admitted that it was quite common for the employers to give away the jobs through connections rather than public competitions, but that is a wide spread practice everywhere, not only in Cambodia.
I grew up in the Soviet Union and post-Soviet Lithuania, so corruption is not something new to me. When I was preparing for exams and applying to study at university, my older brother kept repeating that I was not going to succeed, because I had neither money, nor connections. My mother believed that she had to bribe the officials in order to get her parents’ land back and until today, she is afraid to be in hospital without giving money to doctors and nurses.
Sometimes it is not only the fact of corruption that is keeping people from making an effort, but also inability or unwillingness to adapt to the changing realities of life and increasing competition. Corruption needs to disappear not only from governmental structures, but also from the minds of people! That, however, can happen over a night neither in Lithuania, nor in Cambodia. As they say, in order to see real changes, the whole generation should change and be replaced with the new one.
Corruption, unfortunately, is not the only example of the State misusing its power. Another example is land evictions. Before going to Cambodia, I watched some videos, which showed businesspersons arriving to villages and giving some money to poor people. Those people are asked to sign a document, or to be more precise, to put a fingerprint, which, they assume, is an acknowledgment that they have received the donation. As they can, however, neither read, nor write, the next day they wake up to see bulldozers coming and starting to destroy their homes and gardens. Only then they finally realize what a horrible thing has happened – they have sold their own land!
The situation has been perhaps even worse in the capital, where land is much in demand. First, the businessmen started filling the lake with sand, which resulted in the raised level of water and the flooding of huts built on the edge of the water, and after that many slums were destroyed, people evicted and the land sold for the price, which was many times higher than the original one.
The government has passed the law, which states that people, who have been living in their homes for about five years, have legal ownership rights and that no one can force them to move out. The reality, however, is quite different. Many people have no legal documents to prove the duration of their residence, and for obvious reasons the government has not shown any real interest in issuing them. The government officials claim that such people were offered money for resettlement, but people complain that such money is not adequate in comparison with what the government will get when they sell the land and that it is not sufficient to buy a property in another place either.
When I was in Cambodia one monk was condemned by the government for protecting the victims of land evictions, labeled as a person acting against Buddhism and banned from temples. Land evictions are a good example of what can be really happening behind the scenes of economic growth and modernization. It is a phenomenon, which thankfully does not exist in my country, but I think it is only because the circumstances have been different and because the rights of people in Europe are better protected. As soon as Lithuania got independent and the process of privatization started, government officials, their relatives and friends grabbed the best slices of everything that they only had access to – land, buildings, social accommodation and only God knows what else. Give power to a man, and then you will see the dirt that he is made of!
Some volunteers, who visited Cambodia five or ten years ago, admit that it has changed beyond recognition. A few years ago, the Pub Street, which is now the center of the city’s social and nightlife, did not even exist. According to one volunteer, now only the Old Market is left as a reminder of the old place and probably it will also soon disappear and be replaced by some nice buildings. While I was still in Cambodia two nice wooden bridges were constructed over the river and a new market emerged on the other side, so I think he might be telling the truth. I am just wondering what will happen to the “jungle girl”, her exploitative grandmother and a few other huts that are still left on the side of the new market. My guess would be that they would not stay there for long either!
One of my friends was doing her Master’s degree in Social Work and she asked me if I could help her to prepare a presentation about social welfare in Cambodia. I had, however, to suggest her to choose some other country, because social welfare, as we know it, does not exist in Cambodia and relevant services are provided mainly by local and international NGOs. People don’t pay tax, don’t get benefits and don’t get any pensions when they get old. According to one of my colleagues, maybe she would stay single and not have any children, but who will take care of her, when she gets old?
It looks like after so many years of political tyranny, suppression and wars, all Cambodians want is to live in peace and to get on with their own lives. They do not have very high expectations neither of government, nor anyone else and accept their life the way it is. Unfortunately, for people, who live at the Thai border, peace is also only to be desired. Just like Israel and Palestinians are not able to settle their disputes over certain territories and places of religious importance and India and Pakistan keep fighting over Kashmir, similar tensions, even though on a smaller scale, have been happening between Thailand and Cambodia. During my stay in Cambodia, there was some serious shooting at the border, a few soldiers killed, and many people living in the surrounding villages resettled.
The dispute has been triggered by the ancient Preah Vihear temple, which has been included in the UNESCO world heritage list and officially handed to Cambodia. Because it promises to bring much money from tourists and perhaps other international sources, Thailand just cannot see all of it landing on the other side of the border. Although it cannot claim the ownership of the temple itself, it decided to claim the land around the temple, which belongs to no one and which is nevertheless needed for tourists to reach the temple.
During shooting, part of the temple was destroyed, and there’s still no sign of giving up. Maybe really, they should destroy the temple, so then they do not have anything to fight over! No temple – no dispute! Now much money is wasted for the army, and tourists anyway cannot go to the temple, because it is not safe. Who wins? I think stupidity does. On one hand, I like politics, because everything in this world starts and ends with it, but on the other hand, I do not like it, because for the most of the time it simply does not make any sense!
20. Where to get financial support for volunteering?
If you want to volunteer abroad, you need to pay. If you want to adopt a child from abroad, you need to pay. If you want to donate money to an NGO abroad, someone will probably again take a slice for themselves. People always find ways to make a profit even from the most altruistic things. That, however, should not stop you from pursuing your dreams and doing what you strongly believe in. Here are some funding sources that you may consider:
None of the NGOs listed on the website charge their volunteers. If you still cannot afford volunteering abroad, you can try applying for a scholarship.
European Voluntary Service (EVS):
If you are 18-30 years old and would like to volunteer in one of the EU Member States or accession countries, you can consider participating in European Voluntary Service. It will pay for your flights, insurance, food, accommodation, local transport, language classes, and also will provide you with some pocket money. All sending and host organizations are listed in the database.
Create a short video presentation and win a scholarship, which will cover one-week training and one-month placement abroad.
Volunteers for Peace:
If you are motivated to participate fully in an international voluntary service project and understand the importance of sharing your experience with your community when you return home, try applying for the scholarships offered by Volunteers for Peace.