Just two weeks after finishing my Masters programme, I boarded a plane for Cambodia. This is a country I have become very familiar with over the past eight years, clocking up four visits and spending a total of one year living in Phnom Penh, the nation’s capital. This fifth trip is not only anticipated to be the longest, but also the first one during which I will hold a paid teaching position. Previously I have volunteered in various schools and orphanages teaching English, alongside sports, dance, and piano. Now I am back at Sovann Komar, an orphanage on the outskirts of the city, where I have volunteered repeatedly for the past five years. I have a one year contract as an English teacher and will be teaching both the children from the orphanage and those from the outside community who take advantage of the Orange Elephant School set up within the orphanage compound.
Before I flew, many people asked whether I was nervous or apprehensive about my impending trip. I answered no, that I was excited and couldn’t wait to return, but I began to ask myself why so many people believed that these were emotions I may be feeling. Cambodia continues to be seen by most as a mysterious, far off, exotic, war-torn country struggling to recover from its recent tragic history. In many ways this is true but for me it has become a second home. Whilst there are daily challenges to living here and I appreciate that this lifestyle is not for everyone, I feel strangely comfortable in this hot, dusty, loud, and hectic place. At the forefront of my mind when I stepped onto the 777 was not the deadly roads, nor the dirty water or suspect street food, but the smiling faces of the children, parents, and staff who were waiting to greet me in just fourteen hours time.
I was collected at the airport by my friend of five years, and one of the mothers at Sovann Komar, Nimol (seen in the above photo). She was so excited to see me that she climbed through the barriers and ran towards me as I exited the airport (security is very lax here). We journeyed to the orphanage together, trundling in a tuk tuk down the familiar streets, past several new gated communities which are emerging as money begins to seep into the economy here (the origins of which are both unclear and dubious). As we turned into Sovann Komar, I felt as if no time had passed as I waved to the guards and my good friend Doctor Chhaya who sat by the gate, chatting and laughing together as always. Nimol offered for me to stay at her house within the orphanage grounds until I found a place of my own so we carried my bags through the grassy compound. Immediately I heard calls of “Teacher Ruth” coming from the houses which encircle the school and lawn. It had been over eighteen months since I left and they not only remembered me but were excited to see me return. Children emerged steadily and ran over to say hello, many challenging me to remember their names (thank goodness I was not too jet-lagged!). I walked around Sovann Komar, greeting parents and children alike, hardly able to believe that it was all just as I’d left it, the children a little taller, with better English skills, but overall unchanged and just as charming as when I first stepped through the gates five and a half years previous.
I continue to marvel at how one may leave their childhood house, fly over six thousand miles, land in a completely new country, time zone, culture, and lifestyle and still feel completely at home. They say home is where the heart is and it is Cambodia which has most certainly captured mine.