Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Five Must-Do Things in Phnom Penh

COUNTRY: Cambodia
PROJECT: Education
WRITTEN BY: Timothy Fuller

Geez. What a week! Where to begin? Like most good stories, I’m going to start at the beginning. For the last 7 days I have been in Cambodia or Srok Kmai to the locals. It has been a non-stop adventure, and I have loved every second of it.

I am over here in Cambodia for 4 weeks as a volunteer teacher, here to teach English to Khmer students from years K–6. I have been blessed through both Sydney University and Antipodeans Abroad to be given this opportunity, and I want to share my experiences thus far. Our trip began in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. Phnom Penh is a busy hub of commerce, tourism and has a rich cultural history to explore, if you so choose.

I truly want to encourage others to embrace this experience as I have, so I want to share with you all now the five must–do things if you travel to Cambodia.

1) Stop, look and listen before you speak

The first thing that is a must–do in Cambodia is to approach everything with an open mind. Forget everything you have read in a Lonely Planet guide, or have read on webpages from Google. If you truly want to experience Cambodia, stop, look and listen to the stories of the local people here that walked the hard roads of the Khmer Rouge regime.

I was blessed to have an amazing tour guide who shared with us his own personal story of his life under Khmer Rouge rule. He explained the history that led up to the Khmer Rouge coup. He told us about his experience of the Khmer Rouge hard labour camps. Finally, he shared with me his personal story of what he and his family endured during this time telling us a story of what he saw his mother endure to keep her family alive.

I approached him afterwards and thanked him for sharing his personal story with me. Wiping a tear away from his eye he told me that, “If I do not keep telling my stories, who will be left to tell you the truth?” Every person here has a story and it is well worth your while to listen to him or her before you speak, as you will open yourself up to whole other world, inaccessible through books or movies.

2) Step outside your comfort zone

This one is a big one. Cambodian culture is vastly different to Australian culture (duh) and to truly experience Cambodia, you will often be asked to step outside your comfort zone. If you are willing to do this you have the opportunity to better understand the truly unique facets of Cambodian culture. Cambodia is completely unlike Australia, which is amazing to experience, if you let it. A quote from NFL’s great Joe Nameth epitomises this idea perfectly, “If you're not going to go all the way, why go at all?”

3) Go exploring

Cambodia has a rich history that is embedded into all parts of its culture. To experience Cambodia through the lens of a Lonely Planet guide is one thing. To experience it first–hand is something different entirely. Follow the wise words of Robert Frost and take the one less travelled by, and it will make all the difference. Where possible, don’t follow the masses and become a tourist. Grab a friend, walk out into the streets and explore Cambodia for yourselves. Take photos if you must, but don’t let your desire to remember inhibit your chances to make real memories. Go for a walk down to the river and see what people in Phnom Penh experience on a day–to–day basis. Grab a football and go down to the Olympic Park and have a kick around with the local kids. I promise you it will be worth every second.

4) Love the communities you're in

I have been given a wonderful opportunity to volunteer and teach in this wonderful country. However, is there more you can do to help? As I arrived into Phnom Penh I saw a sign in the airport that spoke about the high prevalence of haemorrhagic fever in children that asked healthy donors to give blood to help save the lives of the children that suffer this horrible disease. Seeing this, one of my other team members and I we went to a well known, safe, paediatric hospital to donate blood. As we walked into the hospital, we saw children, even infants lying outside the hospital gates, awaiting care. Donating blood costs us next to nothing, but can make such a significant difference in the lives of the people of Cambodia. I’m here as a volunteer teacher, but that is not where my service has to end. There are many ways to love the people and the communities here in Cambodia. You just need to open your eyes and look around.

5) Learn some basic, conversational Khmer

My final “must–do” thing in Cambodia is to learn some basic Khmer. The times I have been laughed because of my horrible Khmer pronunciation are innumerable, but a conversation I had with a Phnom Penh local made all the laughs worth it. He told me that by trying to learn even the basics of his language I showed him that I wasn’t just another tourist, looking to have a holiday whilst teaching some English. Instead it made seem more like a genuine volunteer looking to help those in need. Even if you can only learn the core basics like ‘hello’ – sour sdey, or ‘thankyou’ – or kun, the people here appreciate your efforts.

I look forward to sharing more with you throughout my time here in Cambodia, I hope you will come along for the journey with me.

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