Cambodia, A Love Story

I wanted to reformat this post as I did not like the way I had laid it out before (I am currently reformatting and redoing my entire blog to simplify things and clean it up a little), but I feel it is especially important for this post because this was the country that started it all for me back in July of 2013. I know the post is long, but the whole experience means so much to me and was absolutely life changing. Enjoy:

Though I would not change a single moment or step in the incredible journey I look getting to Cambodia, there were a lot of moments I wanted to just give up because my dream to travel seemed just as far away as Cambodia itself. For the first eighteen years of my life, the furthest I had ever gone from home was a family vacation to the Oahu, but I had always had much bigger dreams. I can still remember daydreaming the last few days of my senior year of high school – wishing I would be going off to Europe or Central America like the rest of my friends who had plans to travel after graduation. I was jealous that they would be off having adventures in far away places, but I held on to the hope that going off to college at the end of summer could be enough of an adventure for me. If I had known then that by the end of my first week of college I would be starting my long journey to Cambodia, I think I would have appreciated my situation more.

In September 2012 I moved more than two hundred miles from my hometown in a small college town. While it was nice to be on my own for the first time in my life, I still felt there was something missing. One of the first mistakes I made: thinking taking a class before ten in the morning was a good idea and by the end of the week, I was exhausted from staying up too late, only to get up so early for Chemistry. However, if I had not been in that morning Chem class, I may have never heard the presentation given by two girls from Australia, no more than a year or two older than myself. What they would say next would change my life forever. They spoke about opportunities to work with a non-profit, with stations around the world, working in community and environmental development. When I heard there was an opportunity to work with elephants, though I knew little about the country, I felt in my heart that I had to go to Cambodia. I have always known two things to be true about myself: I have a desire to travel to every corner of the world and I have a deep passion for helping others. This was it. This was the opportunity to combine my two desires. The decision to go was easy, though the road getting there would be a long and bumpy one.

With one half of my family full of small town fears and anxieties and the other half full of doubting hecklers, it felt like summer would never come. I spent months preparing myself, research all aspects of Cambodia, and even meeting a few other people who were going on the same program. As long as the ten-month wait was to start my amazing journey, the actual time it look to travel from Medford, Oregon to Siem Reap, Cambodia felt like an eternity.

I was so excited to catch my 6:35am flight on 11 July 2013, that I could not sleep that night. Instead, I packed and repacked and repacked again my large duffle bag and day pack. As 4:00am rolled around my family packed me into a car and drove me to the airport to say good-bye. It was the first time I had traveled solo; I was so excited but so nervous at the same time. I landed in Los Angeles, California around 9:00am. Here I met up with another girl, Lili, from Southern California who was going on the trip. Her family happened to be from Cambodia so we were taking off a few days early to stay with her family. We left L.A. at 1:40pm. We would not arrive in Seoul, South Korea until 6:10pm the next day. The flight was around thirteen hours. Unfortunately for me, I cannot sleep on airplanes, but even after a Lord of the Rings marathon, I still found myself going slightly crazy. We spent a little more than an hour in Korea and then we finally boarded a plane to Cambodia. On 12 July 2013 at 10:40PM I had finally arrived in Cambodia. It was dark out, but as I hopped off the plane and onto the runway, I was hit with a hot blast of humid air. I will never forget the smell. But the second I stepped onto the tarmac I was in love. Lili and I were met by her enormous family; they were smiling and talking excitedly. I will never forget how welcoming they were. I was so exhausted; it had been more than twenty-four hours since I had last slept. Though I do not remember much of the drive to the hotel, I remember looking out the window up at the sky. It was the same familiar sky and for a moment I felt like I was back at home in Oregon. We checked into the hotel and the last thing I remember is lying down on top of the cool sheets in the only air-conditioned room I would be in for weeks.

The next day we woke up early. Lili, her cousin, and I ventured downstairs, where I had possibly the best breakfast I will ever have. I learned that in Cambodia you eat rice with a spoon and that their banana French toast type bread is the best bread I have ever put in my mouth. After breakfast we ventured outside; the morning air was already starting to heat up. Lili’s uncle then came to pick us up and we spent the day at meeting her family, touring a silk factory, and driving around the perimeter of Angkor Wat. While we were out I tried delicious fruit and drank fresh coconut milk.

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After two days with Lili’s family, we headed to the Angkor Wat Guesthouse in Siem Reap, where we met up with the Reach Out Volunteer team leaders and four other girls who had already arrived. Two of the girls were from New Zealand and two from Australia, where ROV is based. Our Cambodian tour guide then took us on a walking tour of the city. We walked around the markets, the large stores and even visited a few temples. I was already in love with the country, but getting to walk around and get some history lessons made me love the country even more. That night we met up with the rest of the group, twenty-eight volunteers from the U.S., Canada, Kenya, New Zealand, and Australia. These would end up being some of the most amazing people I have ever met.

Three days after arriving in the country that stole my heart, the day finally came to start the mission each of us came to do. After a delicious breakfast, in groups of four, we all piled into tuk tuks and made the fifteen-minute ride to the village we would be working in. When we arrived, many young children, all smiling and eager to meet the new round of volunteers, met us at the edge of the village. We walked along the water and into the village that would become our second home. I was instantly in love with the village; I never wanted to leave. We were split into groups of four, each group assigned to their own school building. Each building was built by a previous group of volunteers. The group that had come before us and set the foundation and frame of the school hut we would be finishing. The first day we took a tour of the village, got to known some of the children, and went to the market that was close by where we would be getting food daily to make for our lunches. Every day we would arrive at the village in the morning and get our assignments. We had rotations of digging our a ditch for the rice fields and transporting the dirt, teaching the children, working on the school hut, and sanding and painting the wood to made the floor and sides of the building. After a long day we would have lunch, do a final rotation and then spend the rest of the day playing sports or dancing with the children – always my favorite part of the day.

The children were by far the best part of the experience. I loved watching them play. They had such a huge impact on me. Though they didn’t have much, these children were the happiest children I have ever met. They were just happy to have us there to practice English with; the thing that made them the happiest was going to school and being able to play with friends and family. I think I learned a lot more from these children than they learned from me. I am so grateful for the opportunity to have met these beautiful people. On the last day in the village I spent most of my time with the kids, fitting in every last type of English lesson I could think of. I also wanted to get tons of pictures to remember them. At one point I let them use my iPod and camera, so they could take their own pictures. Some of the pictures they took are my favorite. They were such beautiful souls and I will never forget them.

Visiting the temples at Angkor Wat had long been on my bucket list and it was completely unreal to be in the presence and to touch something that is practically older than time. I loved everything about the temples from the style of architecture to the stories behind them. I was able to get blessed by a monk and sit at the edge of the King’s lake. As we drove from one temple to another we were able to see elephants and monkeys, it was amazing to see them so up close. I felt so at peace as I walked through the temples and it is another one of the experiences in Cambodia that I will never forget. I cannot wait until the day I can return to Angkor Wat and relive that amazing experience. After touring the temples, we took a boat to one of the floating villages. While the majority of the group stayed under the covered boat as we drifted down the long river out to sea, a few others and I crawled on top of the cover to bask in the sun and get a better view. The air was cooler and sweater on the river and the view was stunning. As we puttered along, boats and children floating in pots and pans would come up beside us. Near the end of the village there was a tourist store. There we were able to buy a few keepsakes and feed some crocodiles.

At the end of the week half of the group headed south to the capital city of Phnom Penh. It was so different than Siem Reap. The streets were bustling and crowded and the city had newer and larger buildings. We stayed the night there and then headed another five hours south into the deep jungles of Cambodia. It was so beautiful and though most of us were exhausted, we were excited to be working with the elephants. We were staying in small huts in the jungle with limited electricity. Though it was stunning, we had to share our space with spiders the size of our hands, which was kind of terrifying. However, once we made the large hike into the jungle and saw the elephants, it was having to shower with the spiders worth it. Elephants have always been one of my favorite animals and it has been a dream of mine to work with them. Deep in the jungles of Cambodia, my dream came true. I was able to help bathe them and I will never forget the gentle touch of the elephant’s trunk patting me as he went by.

Unfortunately, a few days after getting to the jungle I contracted a very bad bacterial infection and had to return to the capital, at which point the political riots from the election began. Though it was fascinating to be at the center of the riots, I had to leave the country a few days early. The people I met in Cambodia truly became like a second family to me. I love these people and I had the time of my life with them. After just five short days working on the schoolroom, we finally finished and it looks absolutely beautiful. I am so glad to have met them and to have shared such a wonderful experience with friends that I will have for life. All my life, I felt like I was the only person I knew who was both passionate about traveling the world and wanting to help others. Words cannot express what it was like to live with thirty others who shared these passions. I will always be grateful for my new family.

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You can see the full album here.

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