Cambodia: Real Beauty

I don’t quite know where to begin.

This is my first proper post about a country, and I have so much to say.

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I couldn’t even think of an apt title. Cambodia is such an amazing place… It really surprised me.

I finally decided on “Real Beauty” because those were the two main things about Cambodia that really struck me. Everything there was very simple, very real, very down-to-earth, unlike the urban city Singapore is. Beauty was found not in the dusty roads and worn down buildings, although that is a form of rustic beauty to me, but in the people. The Cambodians that I met were the most welcoming and genuine people ever. It struck me how they had so much less than us, but were so much happier.

It goes to show that happiness doesn’t come from what you have, but from within.

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I’m still at a loss for words when I think about my recent trip to Cambodia, which is rare, cause there’s usually a lot of thoughts going on in my head. The 12 days that I spent there were extremely eye-opening, and I got to do everything that I had always said I wanted to do when travelling.

Besides the main reason why we were there, which was to teach the Cambodian children English at the Journey of Grace Academy (JOGA), which was set up by a fellow Tembusian, and to raise funds for the school. I also had a chance to interact with locals, cycle through villages, volunteer at a soup kitchen and deliver food to villagers. I even got to meet a bunch of awesome friends from around the world when we were volunteering at the soup kitchen. But more on that later.

Pretty much everything on my travel to-do lists were met on this trip.

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What’s on my travel to-do lists? 

It’s usually something along the lines of:

1) Interact with locals

2) Visit the outskirts and homes of locals to see their way of life.

3) Homestay (if possible)

4) Visit the natural landmarks or historic architecture of the country

5) Cycle/Kayak/Jog/do some physical activity around the country

6) Try local cuisine no matter how weird it seems to me

7) Volunteer work

8) Experience a cultural festival

9) Visit their local markets

10) Make international friends who share the same love for travel and spontaneity.

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The food from Touch-A-Life Soup Kitchen is awesome!
The food from Touch-A-Life Soup Kitchen is awesome!

WARNING: My face is going to appear very often in the posts. Be warned, your screens may crack. Nah just kidding, hopefully that doesn’t happen.

The warning is:
This is going to be an extremely long post, so if you’re not someone who likes to read, just scroll through the photos to get a glimpse of Cambodia!

Alternatively, thanks to technology, you could always use Ctrl-F to find the bits that interest you. 😛

I’m covering:
-Journey of Grace Academy
-Touch-A-Life Soup Kitchen
-Butterfly Tours
-Angkor Wat
-Markets
-Cuisine
-Recreation
-Lodging

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Let’s start with teaching English at school 😀

Journey of Grace Academy

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So we can’t post any photos of the kids who attended the school, so there’s a lack of photos for this segment.

We planned out lessons for the kids, just easy basic English lessons for two aptitude levels. I won’t go into details about the lesson plans…rather I want to talk about their learning environment and their attitudes.

Gosh I sound like a teacher during Parent-Teacher dialogue haha.

“I want to talk to you about your daughter’s attitude in class, and also share with you the improvements the school has implemented to provide a conducive learning environment for our students.”

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Anyway, teaching in their small classroom in the sweltering heat made me appreciate the facilities I have back home. In university, almost all classes are in an air-conditioned environment and we have proper tables and technology at our fingertips. In Cambodia, they have small tables and chairs, the kind we have in our lecture theatres, and computers that occasionally fail on them. Even their power supply isn’t very consistent, and there were a few times that the power flicked on and off. Despite the heat, all they had was a fan. Imagine how hard it is to focus. Or maybe it’s worse for us since we aren’t used to the heat. But it’s still not the most conducive environment, I must say.

I remember one of the days, there was this ginormous lizard that came out from the back of the classroom when I was teaching, and I nearly died. I was so scared, I ran to the back of the classroom. I felt so bad after that, cause I must have scared the kids… and they have to face these kinds of creatures randomly entering their classrooms on a daily basis. The tiny lizards we have at home are nothing compared to these monster lizards. Eeyer.

But that’s a small matter.

I really appreciated how lovely the kids were. They were rather shy initially, but warmed up to us after awhile and were soon eagerly playing games and roughhousing with the guys. Despite the fact that our Khmer was limited to simple greetings and questions, the kids still did try to interact with us and focus on lessons.


I could really go on and on, but I should wrap up for this bit. One last thing that I was impressed with was how the young kids were so independent. It’s not uncommon to see a little boy of say… five years old, looking after his two-year old sister. The kids cycle to school on adult-sized bikes, or walk with their siblings to school. Most of them grab lunch at the Soup Kitchen next door before making their way to their schools.

I’m not saying we should rid ourselves of all our luxuries and comfort, but I just hope that as you read this, you’ll appreciate what you have even more and just be grateful for every little thing in life. There are so many less privileged kids out there.

Touch-a-Life Soup Kitchen

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It was my first time volunteering at a Soup Kitchen, and I loved it. I volunteered there on 3 days. If you’re ever in Siem Reap, you should definitely help out. To complete the experience, try to go down on a Saturday as well so that you can deliver food to the villagers. There’s something liberating about feeding 600+ people from a small tuktuk.

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It was almost like reliving my days at Food for Thought, on a much smaller scale of course. I used to spend 7 hours cutting vegetables when I first started out. It was quite therapeutic actually.

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Sitting in the small kitchen of Touch-A-Life Soup Kitchen cutting vegetables, and talking to my friends, the local volunteers and the other international volunteers was not only for a good cause, but also served as a form of cultural exchange as well. We met a Korean guy and another Korean lady on one day, a Canadian girl and a girl from China, as well as a group of British guys on a gap year. I learned so much about them and their countries over the few hours spent talking to them.

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The local volunteers probably impressed me the most. I was speaking to Mo/Moe, the omelette master, about where he lived previously. He came from Iraq and lived in Australia for a while, and now he’s here. He has lived all over the world… in Czech republic and Spain and a few others I can’t remember. Now he volunteers regularly at Touch-A-Life! If you ever volunteer there, do say hello to him for me J He cooks up a mean omelette.

Another regular volunteer I spoke to is Simone. He’s the founder of an Italian restaurant, Mammashop Italian Restaurant, in Siem Reap. He left his high-flying job in Italy to come to Cambodia because he felt there was no meaning in his life, and he’s been volunteering here ever since! The Cambodian kids are lucky to have an Italian chef helping prepare their food. If I go back, or rather, when I return to Cambodia, I hope to try his food 😀

Red-faced from cooking under Bonet's guidance.
Red-faced from cooking under Bonet’s guidance.

Bonet, who was in charge of the volunteers then, is a sweet Cambodian lady who patiently guided me in cooking. I was quite surprised and touched when she shared with us about her Christian journey on the last day when only two of us were volunteering there. She truly has a heart for the people and genuinely wants to make a difference and help the villagers.

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Even just giving foods to the kids was heart-warming. The kids will come in to the kitchen to greet everyone before eating. As you serve them, they thank each and every server before going off to join their friends to eat. And after their meal, and washing their own plates, they will say thank you to everyone. Not the insincere thank-yous just for the sake of it, but they actually look you in the eye and say it with their hands pressed together and a slight bow of their heads.

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One of the little boys that I tried to interact with was the sweetest ever. He gave me a painting he did, and wrote his name and his sister’s name on it. He even tried to help me wash my plate.

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On the next few days, he came back to find me even though he didn’t attend the english school! He even brought his gang of friends along. When I went back to help them set up tables at the soup kitchen, I would help each one of them carry one end of the benches. It was so adorable how they would all wait patiently by one bench, for me to come along and take the opposite end to carry down. They took turns doing this. Ahhh. I miss them.

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One of his friends even gave me his precious blue marble. I think it was the one I was using when I was playing with him when we first met. I was so touched, considering they probably have very few toys. I wish I could have printed our photo together to give to him!

Delivery

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On one of the last days that I was volunteering there, I was lucky enough to deliver food to the villagers.

That was the best experiences of my life. It was uncomfortable, no doubt, to squeeze into a tiny tuktuk with 4 other people and enough (hot) food to feed 600+ people. The bumpy ride meant the omelettes hanging in the baskets attached to the ceiling of the tuktuk were falling all over us. The hot soup was scalding our legs, the baskets were cutting into our legs and there was just so much going on as we tried to hang on for our dear lives.

The little kids from each village would wave at us, and chase after us as the tuk tuk drove away. Some of them even clambered onto the sides of the tuk tuk as it was moving off, and I was so worried for their safety. At one point, the tuk tuk got stuck, and the kids jumped off to help push the tuk tuk over a small bump. My heart went out to them.

In some of the villages, they don’t even have basic medical care, so we had to carry a medical kit in to pass them medication. There was even one little boy who had a wound on his back that was attracting flies 😦

Despite having so little food, they still lined up patiently to collect their meals, and some kids even took the liberty of giving us flowers! One of them came up from behind me and presented me with this lovely bouquet.

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At our last stop, the kids played a game with us. We stood in a circle as they chanted some singsongy lyrics in Khmer. When she stopped chanting, we had to stop moving. The first person to move was the loser. It brought me so much joy seeing how much fun they were having, even though we didn’t fully understand what they were saying.

Before we left the final village, some of the girls came over to hug us. I felt so so sad. They gave me the tightest hugs I’ve ever gotten, and I just wanted to hug them back and not let go. I wished I could do more for them.

Going on the delivery meant helping with preparations from 7am (cutting and prepping veggies) to cooking and packing the food, and finally delivering the food… all in all ending around 7pm. 12 hours of volunteering is no joke, but it was so worth it. I would do it again without hesitation.

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We also made friends with the British guys: Yeanuk, Olly and Jack, the girl from China, Wenxiu, and the Canadian girl from Quebec, Marie-Pier.

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It was pretty cool getting to know them better over the trip, especially when they saw a really hyper side of me on the tuk tuk. Even I never knew I had so much nonsense in me.
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I even got to ride on a motorbike! 😀

Butterfly Tour 

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Because of the king’s birthday celebrations, we had time to go on a cycling tour organized by Butterfly Tours. It was an extremely eye-opening experience!

It was also my first time tandem-biking! With our gay hats, we clearly looked like foreigners.

We cycled along the roads of Cambodia and through several villages where the villagers warmly called out to us and waved in greeting to this random bunch of foreigners despite the fact that we were intruding into their living space. They were all so friendly.

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We saw rice fields, and were introduced to the history behind woven baskets…and even got to see how rice wine was made.

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The pigs have it good in Cambodia. They eat brown rice and drink rice wine, which makes them drunk so they can get fat easily and be sold off for a good price. We even got to taste the betel nut leaf which can turn your teeth red apparently.

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I must say, cycling alongside rice fields, and having to watch out for the occasional cows crossing the road, was quite the experience.

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The villages barely had proper infrastructure, let alone proper sanitation. What I liked was how there was a very strong sense of community. You see families sitting down together for meals, enjoying each other’s company. You see children running around and playing together, or even swimming in muddy little pond. As we get caught up in our busy lives and work, we tend to neglect our family… but really, family is what matters the most. What is life without the people you love?

Angkor Wat

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We headed down to see the sunrise at Angkor Wat on a Sunday. Unfortunately, the sunrise was rather disappointing. Perhaps we were too late since the sun rises earlier in Summer, or perhaps the sun was rising from a slightly skewed position, so we couldn’t really capture awesome shots.

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Nonetheless, I managed to get a decent shot, and with a little editing to enhance the colours, it looks pretty magnificent!

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We climbed around a few temples and snapped loads of photos. The old architecture makes everything look nice.

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Every location seemed to be apt for a photo shoot!

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I wished there were more signs explaining the architecture though, so I could better appreciate it, or at least imagine how life was in these temples previously.

We met these cute japanese ladies dressed as mario and lugio!
We met these cute japanese ladies dressed as mario and lugio!

One of the temples we climbed had a couple of monkeys, and I nearly died when I reached the top, only to be greeted by 3-4 monkeys. One of them stole my friend’s water bottle, and drank from it! When we wanted to climb down, they were so near the staircase, I was freaking out. Haha, but my friend led the way, so I followed closely before the monkey could do anything to me.

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We returned for sunset at Angkor wat, choosing to sit at the edge of one of the temples. It was better than sunrise, since we could actually see something. But really, it was about the people.

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It was rather surreal to be sitting at the edge staring into the sunset with a bunch of friends who are more like family. I’m so thankful to be in Tembusu College.

 Markets

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On another day, we got to walk through a local market before we helped to paint a training centre. It was interesting seeing the Cambodian version of our wet market.

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There were all sorts of stalls, selling fruits&vegetables, meats, eggs…
I was rather disturbed by their hygiene standards though.

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There were swarms of houseflies all over the meat, and the warmth from the Cambodian heat was a surefire way to breed bacteria. I can’t imagine the number of people who may get food poisoning as a result. My friends said the locals were used to it… but the risk factor for food-borne illnesses is still high. 😦

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There’s so much I wish I could help improve.

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At the training centre, they teach Cambodian youths and young adults sewing and pottery to help them to get a job and break out of the poverty cycle. I spoke to one of the Cambodian girls, and I was impressed by her standard of English, considering that she was self-taught. She’s only 21 years old. She told me she wished she could study in university, but couldn’t afford it, so she’s here learning sewing so she can work in future. Again, my short conversation with her made me realize how lucky I am to be able to study, and how I should stop complaining about how difficult my course is, and rather embrace the learning journey.

Jenny and I painting the training centre!
Jenny and I painting the training centre!

She and another young girl started to help me in the tasks I had to do, like gathering leaves for composting or moving bamboo poles out of the way. Even without words, the power of actions just spoke through. We exchanged shy smiles, almost like school girls who just found new friends.

Moments like this remind me why I like interacting with locals so much 🙂

 Cuisine

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Of course, on a more light-hearted note, Cambodia has tons of good food. We tried quite a few restaurants and here are some of the dishes.

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One particular dish that stood out was the local tamarind fish soup. I tried this on a whim, and the lady boss was so cute. She kept coming out to check on me to see if I liked the soup, cause it was very “local in taste” and she wasn’t sure if I would be able to appreciate it.

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She even brought out the vegetable used in the soup when I asked her about it. Too cute.

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Cambodia is like Thailand in terms of cuisine. There’s mango salad, and variations of salads like vermicelli salads and spicy salads. It’s especially refreshing on a hot day. (Which was pretty much every day there). There’s also tom yam soup and beef noodles!

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Vietnamese eateries are also around, and we had some good pho at a shop called Pho Young. They have good Pad Thai too!

We visited a restaurant opened by F.R.I.E.N.D.S, another NGO in Cambodia, and tried some wacky food.

Silkworms for you?
Silkworms for you?

Silkworms actually don’t taste that bad. Once you get your mind away from the fact that it’s silkworms, it’s quite okay haha.

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I had this vegetable and leek dumpling soup with rice and a poached egg which looked awesome, and tasted… healthy. The coconut lime shake was awesome though!

Recreation

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We visited Pub Street on a couple of nights, and a few highlights would be Mexican food, Blue Pumpkin Ice cream, cheap massages (don’t go if you’re ticklish like me haha), Khmer Family Restaurant for their local food, and their bars. You’ll have some interesting stories to tell after visiting their local bars. We went to Triangle Bar if you’re curious 😛

Lodging

Breakfast at Baphuon Villa
Breakfast at Baphuon Villa

We stayed at Baphuon Villa which is located on Wat Bo Street, but if you’re on a tight budget, the usual Backpackers’ Hostels should be a safe bet. Quite a few of the international students were staying in hostels.

Oh and a quick note if you don’t already know, US dollars are used frequently in Cambodia, probably even more often than their currency since the value of the Riel is rather low.

Cambodia: I’ll be back again

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All in all, if you can’t already tell, I loved Cambodia. It surprised me actually, how much I enjoyed my time there. The beauty of Cambodia isn’t like the kind of beauty you see in Paris or in London, but it’s no less beautiful. It’s a real kind of beauty. If I had to use an analogy to describe them, I would say that Paris is like a gorgeous girl who’s out of your league, nice to look at but a challenge to get to know better… but Cambodia is like that down-to-earth girl next door who’ll be glad to talk to you if you approach her.

Both are great, but if I were a guy (hahaha is this getting weird), I’d go for the real beauty, the one I can visit time and again and not feel pressured, the one I can interact with on a more personal level, the one who surprises me time and again despite her unassuming exterior.

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So yes, if you didn’t get anything out of this post, just know this: Cambodia has won my heart, and I’m sure she’ll win yours too 😛

The Cambodians have so little, but in a sense, they actually have more. The happiness, the community, the love… all of which money can’t buy.

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3 thoughts on “Cambodia: Real Beauty

  1. Hi Andrea! Thanks for sharing about your trip to Cambodia. I’m planning to visit Cambodia this December, so thanks for giving me a sneak peek! Hope you don’t mind my pesky questions:

    Just curious, was this part of a Tembusu College initiative or did y’all go on your own?

    Also, I read online about some safety concerns like bag snatching, did you face any troubles with that?

    Did you pay in Cambodian currency or US dollars?

    Thanks for reading this, Andrea!

    1. Hi Wendy 🙂

      No problem, glad you enjoyed the post. This was part of a Tembusu College initiative.

      I didn’t face any problems with bag-snatching but it would be good to carry less conspicuous bags so as not to attract unnecessary attention to yourself! Basically anything that doesn’t look expensive.

      I paid in USD and received change in Cambodian Currency. You could also pay using the Cambodian Riel 🙂 But the value is so small, so most things are priced in USD.

      Hope this helps and feel free to ask me anymore questions if you need!

      1. Thanks Andrea (or is it Antoliya?)!

        If I have some more questions I’ll drop you another comment.

        Thanks for being so accommodating, have a great week ahead!

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