Being in a foreign country with new friends can bring a great many meaningful things. Firm bonds are forged, fond memories created and a whole lot of fun had. Cambodia was nothing short of a magical experience. But not for the reasons one might expect. Flying over the lush green expanses of Cambodia for the first time, looking out of an airplane window, the neat orderly rows of plantations seem like little more than a collection of geometric shapes haphazardly thrown about to form a patchwork quilt that was once known as Kampuchea under the infamous Khmer Rouge regime. To the casual observer, Cambodia would appear to be a serene and tranquil land, a little more backward than your average Southeast Asian nation. Those in the know, however, are much more conscious of the war-torn history that the little nation once had to struggle through. To most tourists, there would be little to no signs of the atrocities that once tormented the good-natured, kindly-eyed, smiling Cambodian people. Their seemingly unlimited hospitality and generosity leaves no clue to the brutality that once ravaged the nation, but perhaps that is all part of the reason why Cambodia left us with such mystical and wondrous memories of our time there. Seated amongst friends, minutes away from the bumpy landing that would finally bring us onto Cambodian soil, what was supposed to be just a financial literacy education course would soon turn out to be much much more.
Landing at the airport quickly jolted the twenty-three of us out of our languorous stupor. The reality of our stay in Cambodia was impressed as soon as we landed. There were no familiar bridges that connected our plane to a modern and technologically advanced airport terminal; instead we were led down a stairway that had been rolled to the cabin door, and so began to take our first steps on Cambodian (tarmac). As you might imagine, we were quickly forced to confront the reality that Cambodia, despite all we had been told, would always hold new surprises for us at every turn. This all began at the airport, where following admonishments from an immigration officer for not obeying simple, albeit slightly slurred, spoken instructions, our motley gang of junior college students would soon embark on a journey of self-discovery, personal insight and spiritual fulfillment.
Exhausted and travel-weary, afternoon talks about responsible tourism and Cambodian history were in store. While definitely a struggle for most of us bleary-eyed, yawning group of travelers, our host did his very best to set a cheerful tone for the rest of our time in Cambodia. Responsible behaviour was expected of us, and cultural immersion would be better able to take place under such conditions. Admittedly, as the sun continued its leisurely crawl towards the horizon, the buzzing fans and quiet atmosphere began to take its toll. As our speaker began to recount the experience of Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge regime, our first afternoon in Cambodia passed ever so quietly.
Soon enough, it was time for dinner, and a row of pots filled with steaming hot Cambodian food greeted us after the conclusion of our afternoon activities. A dinner filled with laughter and fun games soon followed, and everyone got to know each other better. We were unaware at the time but the sheltered area where we began our journey would also be one of the last places we would spend time at at the end of the trip. The food, extremely delicious and flavourful without measure, would become and understated source of sustenance for our hungry group throughout the trip. Our meals would be peppered with sandwich breaks, but regardless of the food we were provided, our hunger was consistently sated with extremely delicious fare. Undoubtedly, we would fondly remember sitting down in our large circle to enjoy the gently steaming piles of curry and healthy veggies on our plates, or eagerly unwrapping our neatly-packed sandwiches to voraciously wolf them down.
Our first order of duty the next morning was to visit a local temple, and quietly enjoy the tranquil silence within the temple. Our ever-cheerful guide Hong Lee told us stories about monk life in Cambodia, recounting how he himself had been a monk in his youth, and explained the significance of temples and monks in Cambodia. At this point, our group had had interactions with several locals already, and their quiet and pleasant demeanor was very much continued in the temple, where everyone treaded softly for fear of breaking the silence in the temple. The noiseless walk through the temple gave each of us time to appreciate the detailed decorations of the temple, as well as to privately experience a small measure of peace and freedom from the troubles of our regular lives, so far away away from home. This would become a pleasant state of affairs during our trip, where the geographical distance enabled us to leave behind our responsibilities and troubles of schooling life. More than anything else, this would allow us to fully immerse ourselves in the Cambodian experience, enhancing what was already going to be a memorable stay.
Later on in the trip, we would get the opportunity to explore the famed Angkor Wat and admire the aged facade of the painstakingly-constructed temple. Having become commercialised as a result of the growing tourism trade, what had likely once been an unbroken silence amidst the tranquil trees and whispering waves was now thronged with teeming tourists clamouring to take photographs. It was hard to discern, but imagining monks praying quietly at the heart of the Temple City was not that far out of reach. The solid stone construction underscored the extreme attention to detail that had been paid to the construction of the temples hundreds of years ago, and the passing of time only served to make this effort that much more evident as the splendour of Angkor Wat was still breathtaking to behold.
Once our temple visit had been completed, our preparations for our financial literacy course began in earnest back at the hotel. Under the watchful gaze of Fiona, a teacher at the Husk school where our course would be carried out, we began rehearsing for our lessons. The high energy levels that Fiona expected out of us seemed jarring at first, but soon enough would prove to be an absolute necessity. Sometime on the second day of our stay in Cambodia, we visited the Husk school for the first time before our lessons were to take place. Set in a quiet, rural neighbourhood, surrounded by lush green fields and friendly villagers, the Husk school seemed to be at one with its environment, a bright cheerful compound filled with laughing children and happy faces. The lessons we were introduced to were an entirely new experience compared to what we were used to back home. The screaming, laughing and general buzz of attention that the Cambodian children possessed in abundance made Singaporean lessons seem a bit on the dull side in comparison. When it came to our turn to teach the children, it would appear to be a daunting challenge indeed. As we settled down for dinner following the draining day in class at the Husk school, a nagging thought squirmed away inside our minds: would we be able to do this after all?
The very next day, after an early breakfast and more rehearsals of our lessons, we set out for the village in the familiar red bus that was quickly becoming a source of comfort and a place for quiet rest following each day’s activities. Only this time, instead of retracing the previous day’s steps back to the Husk school, we took a detour upon reaching the village, stopping at a crossroads near a large empty field. Our cheerful guides Hong Lee and Sophal explained that we would be going to a village house to do some repair work before going to the Husk school for our lessons, and so began a winding trek through the village that would become a familiar journey over the next few days. Strolling through the village, singing songs from back home, our daily journey to the repair site became memorably enjoyable, and the setting sun became a sight that we would quickly come to miss as our journey came to a close. Under Hong Lee’s guidance, we would pull on some gloves and get to work armed with all manner of hammers, nails and saws.
Building wall frames with split bamboo and holding it all together with hammers and nails proved to be a challenging task. Many of us were struggling initially, until the worldly experienced Mr Koh stepped in to give us some advice. With his help, we were all quickly able to pick up the pace of our repair work before the first day of repairs came to an end. Amidst all the hammering and sweating, bright smiles and a firm sense of camaraderie remained evident as everyone took part in the hard work. While exhausting, our sweat-drenched bodies were buzzing with excitement and energy as the sun began to set, signalling the end of repair works and the beginning of our lessons. After taking some time to dry ourselves, we took the short bus trip to the Husk school, nervously anticipating the first out of our four financial literacy lessons.
The students trickled in, filling up the seats in the classroom, and all too soon, it was time to begin our lessons. The Cambodian students were especially receptive to our enthusiasm, and quickly helped dispel the intial awkwardness in the classroom. What had once appeared to be a daunting and intimidating task soon proved to be a euphoric experience, as our fun and games elicited laughter and shrieking excitement from the students. Yet, despite it all, we somehow managed to teach the students about the basics of financial literacy, validating the pedagogy of the Husk school as having fun together with learning. Perhaps, there was some learning for ourselves too, as our habits and experiences with learning were constantly tested and existing conceptions repeatedly surpassed and challenged. The phrase “comfort zone” became a forgotten area, like a childhood kindergarten that we rapidly outgrew and moved on from, likely never to return to again. At the end of the lesson, we bid the still-grinning students goodbye, rather drained but somehow buzzing with adrenaline for the next few days ahead.
The same process would repeat itself over the coming days, as daily treks to the repair site and school became our daily routine for the next four days. Our efforts at construction soon began to bear fruit, as frames were constructed and palm leaves painstakingly attached to the walls under our toiling hands. An especially cheerful and refreshing memory was that all the while while we worked determinedly, a brood of chickens strolled around and between our repair sites, giving us a taste of the village life that had long since become a distant memory back at home. A pack of dogs, with two young puppies in their midst, also became a familiar site at the village house, their adorable yipping and playing constantly drawing our attention away from our work. Our repair work soon became a place of quiet and serene enjoyment, with everyone putting their best efforts forward to finish our repair work and give the kindly family new walls that they so very much needed. When the time came for our finished walls to be mounted on the house, a burning sense of pride and fulfillment sprung from the depths of our emotions, overriding all feelings exhaustion and weariness that might have otherwise been lurking inside us. It was an undeniably gratifying sight to see the walls that we had built providing shelter to the ever-smiling family. To some, four walls on a hut in distant Cambodia may not have made much of a difference to our lives once we got home, but to us, the knowledge and memory of our efforts in trying to provide a measure of comfort and protection to the family would always shine through as a positive reminder of our efforts in Cambodia. We would go on to build a chicken coop as well, not forgetting to give a home to the chickens that had been so unabashedly strutting around our village repair site in our four days there.
When the time came to say goodbye to the house and the little clearing where we had done most of our work, we made sure to commemorate our experiences with photographs and the like. No matter how short of a time we had spent at the house, the memories we made were sure to live on in our memories even after we boarded the flight back home. As we made our last trek through the village, bidding goodbye to the familiar paths we had walked for the past four days, a distinct sense of wistfulness and nostalgia punctured our moods. While we would not be returning to this particular place for the forseeable future, we all carried with us irreplaceable and invaluable memories and lessons that would undoubtedly enact profound changes inside of us.
In truth, our lessons in Husk school were carried out in a very similar manner, as our efforts in teaching the children rapidly bore results. The children were determined and receptive to our amateur attempts at being educators when in reality we were their peers. The friendly atmosphere between us created a healthy dynamic of almost peer-learning, which certainly reflected the scenario of both of our groups simultaneously teaching and learning from one another. The naked enthusiasm and sheer verve for learning of our Cambodian peers rubbed off on us, invigorating us with the hidden reserves of energy that we sorely needed after tiring afternoons of construction work. The pedagogy of fun in learning that Husk school staunchly stood by proved that despite the mundane nature of what we were teaching, it was still possible to reach a point of fun and laughter, seriously making us question the attitudes with which we confront learning back at home. The intensely gratifying experience we shared in the classroom genuinely touched all of our hearts, and gave us so much to treasure once our time as pseudo-teachers had ended. Our greatest hope, as with the family whose home we had tried to help repair, was that what we had done was to make a difference that would last long after we had gone back to Singapore. Even if our faces became a distant memory, and our voices reduced to whispers that became increasingly hard to remember, it was our fervent wish that the lessons we had carried out would help our Cambodian peers when they began their careers in the workforce.
All in all, our time in Cambodia was incomparably enjoyable and vastly meaningful. Outside of our activities, we were always able to find some short moments to appreciate and marvel and the rustic and humble charm of Cambodia, a country that had gone through a troubled and rough history, yet still possessed a wondrous and unadulterated belief in the bright hope for a better future. Sometimes the hustle and bustle of a metropolitan city is unable to compare to the spiritual connections that all of humanity should strive to keep a firm hold of in order to retain our connections to both our ancestra heritage but also our own intrisic humane qualities like compassion and humble efforts in the servitude of others.