A week ago I touched down in Siem Reap, Cambodia, and what a week it has been. I was greeted by both a wall of heat and humidity, and the lovely Cambodian Leap team, and taken to a hostel not too far from the town centre. Soon enough, all the Leapers were getting to know each other and were settling in with their roommates in each of the dorms. We had a lovely welcoming-night BBQ; I was already thrown into the likes of Cambodian culture, munching on Khmer noodles and curries and a lot of rice!
By Thursday, everyone was raring to go and start on the various projects The Leap had set out for us. We split into two teams, with two team leaders – these were Tom and I – and headed out in the morning to two different worksites, a 15 minute ride from our hostel. There, the teams worked on building wells which would provide fresh water for these extremely poor families. Travelling through the village, which is basically streets of wooden-shack houses and shops, was a real eye-opener as to how the other half live. Children ran about the dirt tracks, which was covered in litter and other miscellanea, and we were fortunate enough to play football with them. To think that these people live solely off what this small community can provide and sell just goes to show how undeveloped these societies are. Despite this, the families at these sites were still willing to provide the volunteers with food and water after the work had been completed for the day. This exemplifies the attitude of Cambodians; even though they don’t have much, they make do with what they do have. They are kind, friendly, gentle people and I feel very safe in the province.
It is interesting that these poorer areas of Siem Reap, built on dirt tracks and surrounded by greenery feel like they should be much further away to the hustle and bustle of the more central roads. There are some real up-market bars and restaurants, and you can sense that in places like Pub Street and the Night Market, that the province thrives off a growing tourist-driven economy. This is perhaps why the town does not necessarily feel rudimentary; although the roads are not developed to the European standard that we know, and the amount of cables that run from each pylon is shocking, it’s market economy is more complex, and there seems to be more dimensions to people’s lives there.
In the afternoons, we journey to the Spitler and Kurata schools. These are some of the poorest schools in Siem Reap, in the same area as the families for whom we work for. In groups of three, we conduct a 40 minute English lesson to different grades. I was actually surprised at the amount of English the children knew and the extent to which they could understand your instructions.
It is apparent that these afternoon English lessons are non-compulsory; the willingness of the children to learn and perfect their pronunciation is really astounding to see. Learning English and ICT will mean that after leaving school, these children will be able to attain a better wage for working at more important jobs. If they don’t have these skills, and go into construction work, for example, they would only earn 5$ a day, which – as explained by the teacher – would only really pay for breakfast. The teacher wishes his students to speak in a Westernised manner, and this is why he is so grateful to have us there, so that they can copy the way we speak. It is actually quite surreal acknowledging the fact that these kids are now changing the way they speak English – even with simple things, such as pronouncing their ‘S’s at the end of pluralised words – and the extent to which this might impact their later lives. Suddenly, 4 weeks spent at these schools just doesn’t seem time enough. The children are also extremely disciplined, to the point that they are almost robotic; when the teacher enters, they all stand and in perfect harmony welcome us. They stand when asked a question, and answer in full sentences. They are all so friendly, and get excited when we arrive. Being at a school in Cambodia is just really cool; participating in a fundamental part of a child’s day is both uplifting and rewarding.
The Leapers, on the weekend, had a fantastic time at the Phnom Kulen waterfall. My favourite part was climbing over the rocks in front of the fall, and actually standing behind the falling water, looking out across the pool. At the same location, we also got a chance to see the largest Buddha ever carved, at the top of a hill where monks resided. Some of the leapers were even blessed by a monk, who flicked holy water over them.
We’ve packed a lot into one week, and I can assure you there is a LOT more to come! This week, we hope to visit the floating village on Tonlé Sap lake, the Angkor Wat temple, and watch a performance at the circus. You can read all about it in my next blog, where I’ll also be touching on the climate, culture and beliefs, and of course our progress in our volunteering projects!