Cambodian Adventures: A Journey of Discovery

Day 1: Arrival and Festivities

After saying our heartfelt goodbyes to our friends and family, we lugged our bags through check-in and security, and finally to our gate, where we immediately went straight to McDonalds and ran into Nick Kyrgios! He begrudgingly took a photo with us and before we knew it, we were on our first flight to Malaysia!

Our layover in Malaysia went quickly, spending most of it in Starbucks trying to work out how to spend our US money and receiving Malaysian cash in exchange. Although in no time we were on our flight and in Cambodia. Once we arrived, we all sorted our visas with the very “friendly” visa officials. We grabbed our bags and danced our way outside with the locals.

We then met our camp instructors and realised how hot it really was before going on the bus to the hotel. We then unpacked and saw our very luxurious rooms, then set out on the bus to the temple and for dinner.

We soon realised it was Cambodian New Year when we saw cars and motorbikes full of people with water guns and baby powder.  In Cambodian culture, baby powder is placed on people’s faces to symbolize beauty and good luck for the new year.

The dinner was so good and we loved the company of our kitten friends. We were all very excited to get back into our hotel rooms to have a hot shower. Can’t wait for tomorrow!!

Day 2: Exploring Cambodia’s Dark History

After a long restful sleep, we dragged ourselves out of bed and went to the 13th floor for our first breakfast in Cambodia. It was a beautiful buffet with a mixture of pastries, bread, fruit, and some meat/noodles. After this, we packed up our day bags ready to learn about the dark and surprisingly recent history of the Cambodian genocide.

Our expedition guide Sarun gave us an overview of the horrors that unfolded during the genocide and spoke about how his family had been personally affected. We then walked to S-21 where we all learned about the horrific torture, abuse, and brutality of the Khmer Rouge. S-21 was a four-year-long prison facility that was converted from a high school by the Khmer Rouge to hold captive people they suspected to be anti the Khmer regime.

We stayed there for two hours walking between the three main buildings before meeting one of the seven survivors of S-21. There were 20,000 people who were killed there. We got back onto the bus and drove fifteen minutes to a ginormous buffet. We were all intrigued by the different food laid out for us as we tried a variety of new sweet and savoury delights.

After stuffing our faces, we were full and ready to go back and immerse ourselves back into the deathliest part of the Khmer Rouge. This was called the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, also known as the Killing Fields. This was where many prisoners of the Khmer Rouge and S-21 were killed. It was incredibly horrendous to see the mass graves that were dug up.

The most confronting part for most was the killing tree and the memorial Stupa, which contained the skulls and bones that were found and categorized by sex, method of killing, and age. This memorial was 17 layers, which was extremely heart breaking when looking up to the magnitude of layers containing the remains of many innocent people.

The killing tree was also a very heart breaking sight. Many people paid their respects by hanging up bracelets and angel wings onto the tree and around the mass grave of women and children. Back in the hotel, we were able to relax and unwind from the intriguing and confronting historical sights and, after eating dinner in the hotel, we were ready to crash into bed.

Day 3: Journey to Camp Beng Mealea

We checked out of the hotel and started our journey to our first camp. Along the way, we stopped a few times.  We then drove to our lunch destination where we sat in a stilt house overlooking the fields with cows and chickens. Our food was served in pineapples and lily pads.

We continued our journey until we reached our campsite Beng Mealea, where we were greeted by our welcoming leader Han. We got a tour of our campsite and then settled into our mosquito-netted dorms. We were then taken to the local temple to be given a water blessing by a local monk and were able to ask several questions about the life of a monk.

We were blessed with red bracelets and then led back to camp where we ate dinner, which consisted of curry veggie soup, bread, and the best-fried rice ever. Han gave us a briefing for tomorrow and then we all got ready for bed. Overall, we all really enjoyed our day and can’t wait for what the rest of this trip brings us. We can’t wait to meet the rest of the locals and get an insight into their day-to-day life. BRING ON THE PROJECTS!!

Day 4: Project Work

We had a 6 am start for breakfast, which was delicious and then split off into our two groups. We walked down to the English classrooms on the camp, which had been built by previous schools. Outside of them is a courtyard of hexagonal tiles that help the drainage and prevent flooding. Our job was to extend this courtyard out to create a level platform for a playground that the kids can go on during their breaks.

We began by shovelling piles of sand onto the intended space and then hammered the tiles into it using mallets. It was around this time that the temperature started to pick up. After a couple of hours of hot work and a lot of drink breaks, we completed our allocated area and filed back to camp for showers and lunch.

By now, it had reached about 38 degrees and, according to the weather app, the humidity made it feel closer to 48, so most of us slumped into the hammocks and rested. When lunch was ready, we all hurried to grab the spring rolls and enjoyed a super good meal.

After that, we had a language lesson from one of our camp guides who taught us some Khmer phrases we could use. Once that was done, we went back to our project jobs and started making more concrete tiles. That involved greasing moulds, shovelling sand and gravel, and mixing the cement.

We made a little over 300 of these tiles, which will be used by future groups to expand the school area.

Finally, we came back, showered, ate a yummy dinner, and now are all back in the hammocks journaling and reading before bed. Can’t wait for tomorrow!!

Day 5: Making Water Pots and School Visit

We got woken up at 6am for breakfast which is right outside our rooms. It has been a big change for most of us, having quite heavy meals such as chicken and rice for breakfast. We got into our working gear and headed straight to making big water pots for the people in the community who need them most. This was the messiest yet most therapeutic project we have done yet. Safe to say walking around in cold clay while listening to music is fun. Then we made cement to start forming our pot. Which we definitely wouldn’t have been able to do without our amazing camp workers.

After some intense rounds of monopoly deal we hopped on the bus to the local school. We were all exhausted and sweating but the little kids at the school changed that in a second. They were so cute and we loved playing all of their local games such as monkey which was an intense running and grabbing game, that really helped us all bond. The language barrier was hard at first but with some help from their principal our competitive sides came out quickly. The main reason we visited was to give the students drink bottles. We can’t explain the smiles on their faces and the feeling we had when we saw their reactions. It was school holidays for these kids but they all put on their uniforms just to play games with us. When we got back to camp there was a yummy dinner waiting for us that was so delicious. Now as the last activity of the day, we began to head over to a beautiful big campfire. It felt like we were on survivor and about to vote someone out. We all sat down and reflected on our trip so far. Then got handed the mike and the karaoke began! We all took turns of singing, dancing and performing. We all had the best time and were left sweating so much. After a good ‘last Friday night’ sing along that got everyone up dancing including the teachers, we were all very ready for a good night’s sleep!!

Day 6: Temple Adventures and Goodbye to Beng Mealea

We woke up around 6 and packed our bags ready for our last yummy breakfast and to say goodbye to our first camp site. We were ready for our transfer to Siem Reap. Along the way we visited the Kulen Elephant Centre where we had the amazing opportunity to feed the elephants with many memorable pictures being taken.

We were greeted by the hotel with cool towels for our face and refreshing drinks. After that, we made our way up to our rooms to shower and relax before heading out to the markets to practice our bargaining skills followed by dinner. After dinner we headed to an amazing local circus. We were all given fans on our way in to deal with the heat. The circus was amazing and the artists performed many amazing tricks and jumps. The performers had come from a school set up to support disadvantaged youth. They were amazing acrobats who had even performed overseas in Paris! Their performance was about the lifestyles of those living in Cambodian villages who were attempting to move beyond the Khmer Rouge period. We learned a lot and it was very enjoyable. After the circus we headed back to the hotel for a well earnt shower and then straight to sleep.

Day 7: Angkor Wat and Floating Villages

We woke up early, excited for the day ahead. After a hearty breakfast at the hotel, we headed out to explore the world-famous Angkor Wat. The grandeur and beauty of the temple complex took our breath away. Our guide explained the history and significance of the temples, and we marvelled at the intricate carvings and impressive architecture.

After spending a few hours exploring Angkor Wat, we headed to the nearby Ta Prohm temple, known for its massive trees growing out of the ruins. It was a surreal experience, and we felt like we were in a scene from a movie. We took lots of photos and enjoyed exploring the temple grounds.

In the afternoon, we visited the floating villages on Tonle Sap Lake. It was fascinating to see how the local communities live on the water, with houses, schools and even shops all floating on the lake. We took a boat tour around the village, learning about the unique way of life of the residents. It was a humbling and eye-opening experience.

We returned to the hotel for dinner, where we enjoyed another delicious meal. After dinner, we had some free time to relax and reflect on our day. Some of us went for a cool off in the hotel pool, while others wrote in their journals or chatted with friends. We went to bed tired but happy, looking forward to the next day’s adventures.

Day 8: Journey to Camp Beng Pae

This morning we enjoyed a buffet breakfast, ready for the 4-hour bus ride. With around 30 minutes left on the bus we stopped at a 7-11 and absolutely loaded our bags with lollies for the last 5 days at camp. When we got there, we had lunch straight away after choosing which long house we were staying in and the lunch was super delicious with rice, beef and amazing spring rolls. Afterwards, we went to the project sites that we will be working on over the next few days which included working on building the English school and digging wells and toilets for the local people. We then walked to the school and spoke more about the community and the school projects. After that we walked to the temple and had a water blessing by the monks in the local temple. We met lots of local kids and walked back to the campsite with them. Then we all showered and had some chill time before we had dinner. For dinner we had rice, chicken and soup. At the end of the day we just chilled in the hammocks and then went to bed.

Day 9: Scaffolding and Well Building

We had a new item on the breakfast list, rice pudding and it was delicious. After breakfast we got ready and split into our two teams to head to the sites. Our team was building the scaffolding of the new English school for the local kids, which included straightening steel rods and slowly putting together the scaffolding. The other part of the group were working on the 5m water well, by using tools to dig down into the sand.

Even though the project work is hard it’s one of our favourite things to do, because as Ms Smith says, ‘the harder you work the more accomplished you will feel’.

Before finishing up we all worked on the well and had so much fun dancing and singing to wakka wakka (and many more songs). After a full day of work we all showered, had dinner and chilled.

Day 10: Cultural Interactions and Soccer

This morning, we woke up ready for a tough start to the day with project work, but we were all excited as we had an afternoon at the local school as a reward. After breakfast we headed straight to work to create concrete rings to build wells and toilets for the local community. It was hard work out in the sun creating cement and moulds but we had music pumping us all the way through to lunch!

Just after lunch, we had a cultural learning session with one of our tour guides, where we learnt about the traditional customs for marriage in Cambodia. This was very interesting and a good insight into a different way of life. After the cultural session we headed off to the local primary school to play and help teach the kids some English. Some things that we taught them were, the alphabet, everyday objects, vowels, simple sayings and more. After this we played fun games with them all that included duck duck goose, dancing, soccer and some traditional Cambodian games. By the end, despite the language barrier we had all created strong bonds with the local kids.

When we came back to the camp, we chilled in the hammocks and played lots of card games with everyone. Whilst this was happening some of the local kids came to the camp and we hung out and played a massive soccer game and it was really fun. It was overall a great and rewarding day and we can’t wait for the days ahead!

Day 11: Project Progress

After another one of our early 6am starts we slowly got out of bed and headed straight to breakfast, consisting of: eggs, bread and a noodle dish, which was much needed. Then we moved on to our first session of work for the day which was awesome today as we got to work all together as a big group for the first time which was a lot of fun. Previously we had been split into two working groups to cover more sites, but today we were all contributing to building an English school and a well!

It was amazing to see the progress that we’ve all made over the past few days and It’s been especially great to work with the Camps International team. They have been so helpful and kind. We are sad it’s our last working day tomorrow.

Seeing all the progress has been very heart warming just knowing it’s going to create a massive difference.

It’s great to see some of the local kids around the worksite playing around and interacting with us. The well we’ve been working on is around 6 meters deep now and seeing all the working staff being lowered down into the well by a rope really gave us a perspective on how much progress we as a group have been making.

Before lunch we had an Anzac Day reflection followed by a minute’s silence.

We had a really good lunch, which helped us move on to our second work session of the day. There was certainly a lot of concreting. Although we were quite tired, we kept reminding ourselves of the difference we were making.

As we got back from our work the local kids arrived and we played lots of games with them and overall had a really fun time. Then we moved onto dinner which was one of the best ones yet. We were served spaghetti bolognaise and it was a major hit. Although, we love our Cambodian dishes this western meal was a real treat for us. Some of us even went up for thirds. We ended the day with a beautiful sunset and a great game of Cambodia trivia. The winners got an ice-cold coke!

It’s all a little bittersweet as we are approaching the end of the trip. We are missing home and have been talking about our first meals next Monday when we are back in Sydney, but we’re going to be sad to leave.

Day 12: Last day of project work

We had an early morning wake up again for our last day of project work. We kicked off the morning with a delicious breakfast, the milo was a big hit and so was the French toast (Cambodian style!). We headed to the project site, playing music to give us energy and set the vibes for the day. We reached water at the bottom of the well and began the job of placing the concrete rings inside. The depth was approximately 8m.

Seeing Han get in the well and straighten the rings was truly amazing. He is the most incredible person who has dedicated his life to helping Cambodian people through Camps International. He’s been the best guide (see photo below).

After a bittersweet ending to our final day on the job, we headed to lunch which was delicious (especially the refreshing fruit) and had a long well-deserved COLD shower. We spent the next few hours of downtime sharpening our card game skills and painting our group sign to hang at the camp to leave our mark. Later on, we went to the school and played lots of games with the local kids. We played soccer, duck duck goose and a local game called cow and tiger. We then walked back to camp and had dinner before going outside to have a campfire party with the local kids and their families. We also learnt Cambodian dances and were even able to teach the locals the nutbush.

Han Crew Member with Australian travellers

Last Day: Bye Bye Cambodia

Yesterday we woke up early had our final breakfast and said our goodbyes to the local community and the camp staff. It was a teary goodbye as they had taken such good care of us. We have built such great connections here, so it was hard to say goodbye. we took a group photo outside of the camp and headed off back to Phnom Penh.

Once we arrived, we spent most of the time at the markets which were massive practising our bargaining skills and purchasing gifts for the fam to show our appreciation and love. We came home for our last night together feeling sad but excited for our trip home.

Bring on those açai bowls.

Students from Australia experienced life in Cambodia and helped with projects addressing UN Sustainable Development Goals: No Poverty, Zero Hunger, Good Health and Well-being, Quality Education, Gender Equality, Clean Water and Sanitation and Reduced Inequalities.

We would like to thank them for sharing their story and positively contributing to our partner communities in Cambodia.

Explore more on the school expedition below.

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