Ten years ago today, my feet first touched Cambodian soil. I had no idea that a decade later I would be living and working in that very same country with no plans to leave any time soon. I came to Cambodia as part of a one month expedition, which also included Thailand, with a company called World Challenge. We were doing their ‘Team Challenge’ expedition and I was part of a twelve-strong group of sixteen and seventeen year olds from my secondary school. We’d spent close to two years raising the £3,000+ each to go on the trip and it all boiled down to four weeks in South East Asia. At the time, it wasn’t one of the best experiences of my life, predominantly because of our incredibly unpleasant team leader whom we later got fired from World Challenge. I think our troubles in Thailand left a sour taste at the end of our travels but when I was planning my gap year two years later, there was only one country I wanted to go to: Cambodia. Since then, I’ve never looked back. In between finishing high school, getting my undergraduate degree and then my masters, I have spent a combined total of three years in Cambodia so far. Over the past ten years I’ve worked for numerous NGOs, taught hundreds of children, lived with lots of different people, and made some of the very best friends in the world.
In honour of this milestone, I’ve been re-reading the diary I kept when I was travelling. Some of it could have been written by me yesterday. Some of it was clearly written by a sixteen year old with no understanding of the possessive apostrophe (I’ve had to correct them grammatically to publish here because it’s just embarrassing). Anyway, here are some extracts for your enjoyment.
Saturday 15th July 2006 – Arriving in Cambodia
It’s beautiful and outside the city it reminds me of Spain/Mallorca but the hustle and bustle of the centre is amazingly different to anything I’ve ever experienced. There are thousands and thousands of motorbikes, many of which have two or more people on. The current record is 5! I saw a mother feeding a baby on one and very few riders wear a helmet … We passed the Royal Palace and saw lots of children begging. It was really sad as they were all so beautiful. We also saw a man who had been crippled, probably by a mine set down during the wars in Cambodia.
Sunday 16th July 2006 – Phnom Penh
I didn’t sleep too well as our window was open and Phnom Penh is the new city that never sleeps! … The killing fields, when we finally arrived, was a very sad place … The mass graves and the signs stating the numbers of the dead that were buried there was a horrible thought but I had no personal experience of it so it did not mean as much to me as other massacres … At dinner we all sampled some delicious Khmer food. It’s very similar to Chinese.
Monday 17th July 2006 – Orphanage Day 1
I was crammed into the minibus and it got called over by police but we don’t know why. The tuk-tuks in front had to swerve across a steady stream of traffic to stop and wait for us. The driving here is crazy! [At the orphanage] we were enthusiastically greeted by beautiful kids … It’s lovely to play with them as they’re all so friendly. I wish I could take some home with me.
Wednesday 19th July 2006 – Orphanage Day 3
Some people went to the market today to get sheets, a kettle and underwear as the kids here only have one pair each! Now, thanks to us, they have two … I ate crushed beetles which were actually delicious. In the restaurant we were served an un-gutted fish. It was great fun pulling it apart!
Thursday 20th July 2006 – Orphanage Day 4
It monsooned again today … When it was time to leave we had to wade up to the tuk-tuks. Sometimes the water was over my knees. It was great fun though despite the fact that the water was sewage water and Jo and I saw a syringe and a drip bag which made us really worried about stepping on a needle or anything else. It made us realise what environment these people live in.
Saturday 22nd July 2006 – Orphanage Day 6 (Now known as SOS Day)
A nurse came in to read my blood pressure and heart rate and to take a blood sample … When the doctor came in an examined my ankle he said it was probably a spider bite … and that the spider had left poison in my ankle. He gave me some pills to take every 6 hours and I was put on an IV drip … It was our last day at the orphanage too and the goodbyes were so upsetting as we’re never going to see those kids again.
Sunday 23rd July 2006 – Travelling to Siem Reap
The bus was going at a good speed but I have no idea what that speed was as all the dials had broken. There were loads of cows that seemed to be tied up but we still almost hit some. There were stray dogs and straggly chickens too … Siem Reap is really beautiful and I prefer it to Phnom Penh.
Tuesday 25th July 2006 – Angkor Wat
There is a terrific set of extremely steep steps, very worn and uneven. Adam, Kate and I climbed up them … This sort of climbing would never be allowed in England because of all the healthy and safety procedures! The views were so spectacular that we sat at the top in a window for about an hour … Before leaving Angkor Wat, we all decided to investigate the source of some exotic music. We found a current Buddhist temple. I felt that looking at them was a bit intrusive but I wandered up quickly. I also saw a line of red ants.
Wednesday 26th July 2006 – We say ‘lear-en-haoey’ to Cambodia and ‘sa-wat-dee’ to Thailand
The bus was absolutely tiny! … the road we were on was ridiculously bumpy. At one point I left my seat by 15cm and the sweets on my lap flew down the bus … Kate and Louise were passing the time by counting pigs! … We managed to cross the border without being blown up by a mine which is also very good.
Ok so I wasn’t the most eloquent of writers. But a few of these sentences could have been written in one of my current blogs! Some of them, of course, could not. I mean, was I really that insensitive at the Killing Fields? Possibly, I can’t really remember and I was a self-absorbed teenager at the time. But did I really think the genocide I was learning about didn’t mean much because my grandfather wasn’t involved? And just to clarify, Cambodian cuisine has very little in common with the Chinese take-aways I was referring to. Presumably it was because I’d eaten noodles and rice … And the way I talked about the orphanage kids like we were their saviours! It actually sounds like this orphanage was one of the ones the media now warns against. Clearly there was a regular influx of tourists and white money, each group believing they were helping these poor kids who were really just smiling and playing with them because they knew they’d get things bought for them. As for Angkor Wat, health and safety has encroached sadly and you can no longer climb like monkeys over ancient ruins. Although perhaps in terms of preservation, this is a good thing. I also don’t tend to write about seeing a line of ants … Oh and no one says that Khmer I used as a title of the final entry. I’m not even sure what it’s supposed to sound like.
But what is the same? The crazy roads, ridiculous driving, and lack of helmets. The beggars and cripples near tourist attractions. The noise of the city. Monsoon floods with discarded medical supplies floating in them. Saying goodbye to the kids I work with makes me cry. Buses with speedometers that never work. Cows, dogs and chickens regularly meet their fate on the roads. I still visit that little working temple near Angkor Wat every time I go. The border crossing in Poi Pet is one of the worst in the world.
Ten years has passed and Cambodia has certainly changed. I have too, thank goodness. Some changes have been good, others less so. Some of the Cambodia I wrote about ten years ago is recognisable today, other areas have faded away. But one thing remains the same; my unrelenting, deep, and enduring commitment and love to this country and its people. Here’s to the next ten years.