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Cambodia: Second Time Around

CAMBODIA | Tuesday, 14 February 2012 | Views [1457]

Early morning monks walking the streets of Phnom Penh

Early morning monks walking the streets of Phnom Penh

Cambodia is a country of contrasts and contradictions. 

Beautiful lush countrysides make no secret of the horrific past, the recent genocide of the Khmer Rouge that is raw to every person you meet in Cambodia. 

I have travelled to Cambodia previously for work, and on being made redundant from my job I decided to put my time to good use and volunteer on a house building project. My first visit to Cambodia had deeply moved me and I fell in love with this country; the people, the culture, the energy. 

I arranged a boutique hotel for my first night, indulging in the lovely Quay hotel overlooking the Mekong River. As I watched the sun set from my penthouse balcony, I tried to anticipate what my time would be like volunteering. While I was excited to meet my new friends, I was also anxious about being in a remote part of Cambodia doing something I had never done before. 

I was also able to draw upon my many years in emergency assistance; I led a team responsible for looking after travellers when they found themselves in a  situation and needed help. I had overseen many cases in Cambodia where I had recommended an evacuation to another country, and the more remote the place, the more complex the movement. Regardless I had to throw myself in the deep end and show a brave face. 

On my trip prior, I had been to the tourist places of the Killing Fields and the Toul Sleng Prison. Both nasty reminders of Pol Pot of his evil henchmen who sacrificed their country for the egos. My ex boss had recommended I visit the Killing Fields, which I did and then I spent hours afterwards crying in my hotel room. Unable to talk or eat. Walking through the green shallow graves and stepping over remnants of bone and teeth, knowing that somebodies mother, brother, father, sister of child had been tortured to death underneath my feet was too much to bear. My guide told me to take photos and I could hardly hold the camera, but he insisted, and told me to show people these photos so that they were reminded of this evil time. 

Enough said. Its not pretty, but a visit to the KIlling Fields is probably a must for everyone who arrives in Cambodia. It gives reason to the many contradictions of the country. It promotes empathy.

After meeting my team, we travelled to Kampong Speu, a province 3hrs south of Phnom Penh. Our village was dry despite the rain, and the villagers were very pleased to see us. They had saved for more than 7 years to come up with the required amount to purchase a house we were about to build. USD25. 7 years! In order to meet this necessary outlay, they were required to take part in a micro loan program which enabled them to undertake vocational training and establish a means of income that would lead them to longer term financial stability. 

Volunteering is another blog altogether. There are endless words to describe how much I loved building houses, the pride I felt with each hit of the hammer and the absolute joy I felt handing my houses over to their new families. But as I say, its another blog altogether. (hint: watch this space!)

After my time in Kampong Speu, it was a few days celebrating in Phnom Penh before I found myself a villa in Kep. Once the holiday town of the wealthy and educated Cambodians, the fishing village of Kep was the first place to become victim to the Khmer Rouge. The French provisional houses were bombed and torched, the town's restaurants and cafes taken apart brick by brick. To describe what happened to the occupants here is painful and the memories of this time are still hauntingly obvious as you walk along the foreshore. 

I rented a gorgeous villa that has been restored by foreigners, a blue house known as Knai Bang Chatt. My villa sat facing the ocean, and it was during a time of angry grey clouds and a small cyclone. My time alone was spent reflecting on my life, and deciding on my future, being stuck inside a villa watching a cyclone roll in was certainly not the worst thing that could have happened to me. There were intermittent periods of sunshine, enough for me to venture out to the horizon pool for a few laps - or a walk into the village to indulge in Fish Amok, the national dish! 

Returning to Phnom Penh before my departure home, I treated myself to all my favourite Asian luxuries. Food and cocktails being high on the list, closely followed by massages, manicures, pedicures and shopping. 

The highlight for my trip to Cambodia was sweltering under a tin roof with a hammer in my hand. I cannot wait to go there again!

Tags: cambodia, kampong speu, kep, killing fields, volunteering



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