Alexandra Brunjes - Care & Community in Cambodia High School Special
When I arrived in Phnom Penh for my two-week Care & Community High School Special the weather was extremely hot. And it wasn’t “I better take off my sweater” hot. It was “I need an ice bath”, “sweat is dripping down my back” hot. That being said, I was ecstatic that my 24 hours of travelling was finally over, and once I made it through passport control, my long-anticipated two-week experience began.
One of the Projects Abroad representatives met me and a few other volunteers at the airport’s exit with a colourful sign, and once we were all accounted for, we piled into a van and were whisked off to the guesthouse. As we drove away from the airport, I couldn’t help but stare out the window and take in my surroundings. As a New York City girl, I’m used to towering skyscrapers and yellow taxicabs, and it is rare that I am more than 10 feet away from an air conditioner or a Starbucks; Phnom Penh offered a stark contrast.
Travelling to my accommodation
As we drove along, I took mental pictures of the short white houses and the passenger-filled tuk-tuks, breathing in the bright, dusty air. There was an exciting atmosphere that seemed to fuel everyone around me, echoed in the seemingly chaotic busyness of the roads, which were brimming with cars and motorcycles weaving between one another with admirable agility. We soon arrived at the guesthouse and were assigned to our rooms.
The staff were friendly and welcoming, and I soon settled into my room and met my roommate, Aya. As we unpacked we spoke about our lives at home and our excitement for the trip. Soon it was dinnertime, and as we walked to the nearby Projects Abroad apartment complex, where we would eat most of our meals.
Our Care placement
The next day was spent learning about our placement, a day care centre on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, reading through our trip itinerary, and being taught a few simple Khmer phrases to use with the children, such as “what is your name? (chuh - moah ayy-ee?)” and “how old are you? (ohn-ayoo-panham?)”.
We stopped at the Khmera day care centre for a few minutes in order to get a firmer grasp on what a typical day would look like. When we arrived, the smiling faces of over 30 children lined up at the fence, screaming excitedly in Khmer and beckoning us off of the bus. As we walked in they ran up to us, excitedly hugging our legs and taking our hands, proudly showing us their classroom, their backpacks, their abilities to count to 10 in English. It was an adorable welcome.
Later that day we visited the Russian market and learnt the art of bargaining, many of us bringing bags and bags of goodies back to the guesthouse. Throughout the day we had the opportunity to relax and get to know the 14 other school students on our trip, all of whom came from across the globe and spoke a variety of languages.
It was a culture shock within a culture shock, as throughout the course of the day I heard not one, not two, but five languages, only one and a half of which I understood. It was an amazing whirlwind of new faces and experiences. At our welcome dinner that night, we were told to dress conservatively and sleep well, as we would be working outside for most of the next day. I was admittedly apprehensive, but I couldn’t wait to see the kids again.
The next day after a breakfast heavy with Cambodian food such as noodles, dragon fruit, and small glazed donuts – yum! - We piled onto the bus and embarked on the 45-minute drive to the Khmera day care centre. The day care centre itself was very cute; it featured a large walled in room with a cement floor decorated with colourful paper wreaths strung across the ceiling and bright posters on the walls labelled in Khmer and English.
The best part, though, was the children, who excitedly spoke to their two teachers in rapid Khmer as we organised ourselves for a day’s hard work. The first day, we sanded and scrubbed the large fence in front of the school, prepping it for the paint job to come on day two. As we went to work with sandpaper, the kids had their morning lessons, though to say that they were a little bit distracted is an understatement. When we finished sanding, we went inside and played with the kids, somehow forgetting about the scorching heat as we gave piggyback ride after piggyback ride and learned to play children’s hand games.
At lunchtime we helped the teachers by setting out the plastic tables and chairs and serving the children their meal; watching as they said grace before eating. While they ate we laid out mats and pillows, because after each child finished and brushed his or her teeth, they lay down side-by-side on the mats for a nap, giving us the perfect stretch of time in which to move the toddler-sized tables and chairs outside so that we could unpack and eat our own lunch. In the afternoon around 3pm we returned back to the Guesthouse and unwound before dinner and a desperately needed night of sleep, ready to recharge for day two on the job.
Over the course of the first week, we painted, cleaned, and constructed, as well as taught and interacted with the kids. We also washed their hair for lice, cut their hair, and helped them brush their teeth and learn basic hygiene. During the first weekend after spending Monday through Friday in the placement, we took a 6-hour drive to Siem Reap, stopping at a beautiful restaurant for lunch and then watching traditional dancers at a buffet dinner and exploring the night market once we arrived in the evening.
We spent all day Sunday visiting breath-taking temples, including Angkor Wat, whose incredible beauty and subtle intricacies has caused it earn its title as one of the Seven Wonders of the World. We finished the night with another buffet dinner and traditional dance show, and spent Monday driving back to the Guesthouse in Phnom Penh.
Community project in Cambodia
The second week was spent continuing to work at the placement (we installed a swing set, painted the bathroom and constructed a gravel pathway) as well as visiting Khmer Rouge genocide museums such as The Killing Fields, a death camp and the resting place of many Cambodians, and S-21, a school that was converted into a prison during Khmer Rouge rule in the 1970s.
Seeing such tangible evidence of the brutality that occurred in Cambodia’s past, though a shocking experience was one that held great importance and added a layer of understanding to my knowledge of Cambodia. On Friday of week two, our final day at the placement, we treated the kids to goodies such as colourful fruits and cakes and said our goodbyes, accumulating final pictures, hugs, and smiles before boarding the bus from the day care for the last time.
On Saturday we flew home, leaving behind a wonderful group of kids, but bringing with us great memories and an unforgettable experience.
Final thoughts on my trip
Overall, my two-week high school special in Cambodia was truly an eye-opening experience. Through personal interaction with the kids and daily visits to their day care centre, I was reminded of how fortunate I am.
Noticing that the children shared clothing and toothbrushes, did not have air conditioning or even shoes, and, as I was told by the teachers, often ate their only meal of the day at the day care centre, I realised both how good I have it and also how little is needed in order to be happy. The children I played with each day always wore easy smiles and played with their few toys joyfully, disregarding the fact that they were taking naps on a cement floor, bathing under a small spout behind the school, and suffered from the constant loss of teeth due to lack of dental hygiene.
The experience was very rewarding and humbling, and I can only hope that I impacted the lives of the children as much as they impacted mine. Thank you, Projects Abroad, for making this trip possible!
This volunteer story may include references to working in or with orphanages. Find out more about Projects Abroad's current approach to volunteering in orphanages and our focus on community-based care for children.