The friendliest welcome in one of the world's poorest nations
24.06.2015 - 18.07.2015 35 °C
As we left Cambodia, we were searching for the reasons why we fell in love with the country. Phnom Penh and Siem Reap are nice cities, but they certainly aren't spectacular in the way that Sydney and Cusco are. The scenery, too, is not as gorgeous as its neighbours Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. We became besotted with Cambodia for one reason alone: the people. They're the kindest, most friendly folk we've met on our trip without a doubt.
To say that the Cambodian population have endured a difficult recent history doesn't even begin to describe the torture they have had to endure. On a harrowing day at the Killing Fields and S-21 prison in Phnom Penh, we learned that three million citizens were killed by the Khmer Rouge between 1975 & 1979. Almost half of Cambodia's population was wiped out in little more than four years. As the neighbouring Vietnam War raged on and Western access to Cambodia was severely limited, the murderous regime even gathered many global sympathisers. A number of the Khmer Rouge hierarchy are still awaiting trial for their roles in the genocide.
As we encountered more and more Cambodians, we were truly humbled by their hospitality. There are a vast number of social enterprises throughout the country aimed at getting the country and their people back on their feet. One of our favourite haunts was Epic Arts Cafe in Kampot, a sleepy riverside village in the south of Cambodia. The cafe is an inclusive working environment for deaf and disabled people, serving fantastic sandwiches and cakes.
From here, we moved to Otres Beach. Although only a few kilometres away from the thumping music of Sihanoukville, it's an entirely different world. For three days, we did nothing but sip ice-cold drinks on the white sandy beach and eat delicious amok and curry at the beachfront restaurants. It may not be quite as idyllic as the Thai beaches, but it's still a small strip of paradise.
We soon moved on to Siem Reap though, which was to be our home for two-and-a-half weeks. Before we began volunteering at New Hope Cambodia, we squeezed in a three-day yoga retreat on the outskirts of the city (guess whose idea that was).
When we could drag ourselves away from the gorgeous swimming pool, we strained and stretched every sinew in one of the day's many classes. Doing a poor impression of the downward dog in 40 °C heat with no fans brings a whole new meaning to the phrase 'dripping with sweat'.
The end of our yoga retreat didn't bring much respite though, as our two-week volunteering project at New Hope Cambodia meant cycling almost 20km a day. Each morning we woke bleary-eyed, but the first kilometre of our ride took us alongside an open sewer in scorching temperatures and the stench quickly forced us awake.
As we sat under the fans at school on our first morning, we soon forgot about our shirts sticking to our sweaty backs as the 300 children lined up to sing songs in both English and Khmer at the Monday morning assembly.
After a brief tour of the school and clinic, we were each assigned a class. Unlike classes in England, the children at New Hope Cambodia were distributed into groups dependent on their ability. This meant that the students in Sophie's Grade One class ranged from 6-13. I was in Grade Three, where kids aged 10 were taught alongside 20-year-olds.
The majority of our time at school was spent with small reading groups and although there was the odd tearaway, most of the children took such pride in their studies and tried really hard to improve their English.
During our first week, the school was closed on the Friday for Rice Drop Day, when more than 300 sponsored families came to collect their monthly sacks of rice. Despite almost putting my back out carrying the 50kg bags to hundreds of scooters, bikes and tuk-tuks, the grateful faces of each and every person who attended meant that every excruciating lift was worthwhile.
With almost 30 other volunteers at New Hope Cambodia, it wasn't hard to keep ourselves entertained in the evenings. We went quad biking through the villages surrounding the city, watched a spectacular circus performance at Phare and made more than a few trips to taste the succulent ice cream at our second home, Blue Pumpkin.
However, no trip to Siem Reap is complete without a visit to Angkor Wat. We set our alarm for the scandalous time of 4:30am on a Saturday morning and set off into the dark. The iconic image of the temple is set against the backdrop of a radiant sunrise, but we arrived on an overcast day.
Nonetheless, we were still treated to a spectacular view of the largest religious building in the world. The sheer size of the building, which was built almost 1000 years ago, cannot be comprehended until it's seen. We kept getting lost in the maze of tunnels and often stood gazing with our mouths wide open at the discovery of endless monumental buildings and sculptures.
The splendour didn't end at Angkor Wat though and it's easy to see how Bayon Temple, with its central peak, is still revered to this day. The most eerie and fascinating of the three temples we visited was Angkor Thom. The scene of Tomb Raider made us feel like intrepid explorers stumbling across a hidden gem, with giant sprawling trees twisting their way across the piles of crumbled ruins.
On our last day in Cambodia we were taken to see the family of a girl in Sophie's class who we have decided to sponsor. A short tuk-tuk ride took us closer to the city centre, where she lives with her mum, dad and younger brother.
Their house is a 2x3m room with a thin wall in the corner boxing off a tiny bathroom. The floor itself lies lower than the ground outside, so when it rains their home is often flooded with two or three inches of water. All four family members sleep in one bed. The family's sole income comes from the dad's job as a tuk-tuk driver.
Despite their obvious hardship, the family were so welcoming and willing to talk to us. The children at school, all of whom live in similarly harsh conditions, are bundles of joy and incredibly eager to learn. They are what made Cambodia such a highlight for us and are the reason why it will always have a special place in our hearts.
Kristian and Sophie x