Its been almost two years since the grueling 40 hour pilgrimage I made to Cambodia, and yet in some ways, it feels as though it just happened yesterday. Most memories are still fresh and vivid, which is a testament to how new and different things stick with you. I'm writing this blog because I believe this is the halfway point between the first, and second time I travel to this unbelievable country.
The first time I went to Cambodia I was there for work, well...sort of. I was an employee of Rustic Pathways, a service learning organization that takes students all over the world to learn about new cultures and give back to the community. My job was to make sure these kids, all of whom were at their most impressionable years of 14 to 18, stayed alive. What could have been a summer of cat fights, bullying and complaints, ended up being an unforgettable experience that was less like a job and more like a vacation. Well, by vacation I mean I spent most days knee deep in a rice paddy, building a retaining wall, mixing concrete, or building a playground...but in the end it didn't seem like work. All this work went towards improving the lives and well being of a number of kids associated with the Kampuchea Kids Project, a subsidiary of the Buddhist Society for Development Association. A lot of the kids associated with the program are orphans, but not all of them. The program gives kids a place to play, learn traditional Khmer dance, and develop skills such as weaving or cooking.
The history of Cambodia is rather dark, especially in recent years. During the 1970's an extremist group, called the Khmer Rouge, committed one of the largest genocides in recent history, exterminating roughly half the population in an effort to erase anything foreign or elitist. What this meant was those who were scholars, teachers, lawyers, from another country, or even wore glasses, were killed. To keep this blog post from getting too depressing, I'll stop with the history lesson no, but you can see scars of this all over the country. Why bring this up, well, the traditional dancing that the kids learn helps to strengthen an almost lost culture.
But anyway, I learned a lot of things during my time working at the BSDA, and shuttling back and forth between Phnom Pehn, Kampong Cham and Siem Reap (oh yeah, every week when new kids arrived we spent one day in Phnom Pehn touring, 5 days in Kampong Cham doing service, then 2 days in Siem Reap touring Angkor Wat).
Second, Cambodia is dangerous. Not dangerous in terms of crime, but in terms of everyday living. In a span of one month I was in three car accidents, one of which occurred in a wagon that was pulled by a motorcycle. There are also goats and cows that randomly walk into the middle of the road. Oh and the main highway here? There's no rules. Buses hurdle down at 70mph while bikes, motorbikes, and cow-drawn trollies share the same lanes.
Third, driving or riding in the back of a motorbike is terrifying, especially in Cambodia. I took a ride in the back of a motorbike to the Phnom Penh airport (~40 minutes) and it was easily one of the scariest and most exhilarating experiences of my life.
Fourth, Cambodia is a hardcore foodies dream. I tried a number of disgusting and surprising treats while I was there. Spiders, grasshoppers and crickets are normal street fair, and to my surprise, the giant spiders I ate were actually pretty good. What wasn't as good was the fertilized duck embryo (pong tia koon), which is a staple in many east and southeast Asian counties (Balut in Philippines). To be honest, it wasn't that bad, I'm just not itching to have another one for a while.
Fifth, sometimes, an expensive education doesn't prepare you for the world. This was made obvious when myself and one of my co-leaders couldn't place a tile floor correctly for several days, and a random man walking with a cigarette knew exactly how to do it. An expensive university education doesn't get you everything...
Sixth, Buddhism is everywhere. Cambodia isn't exclusively Buddhist, but 95% of the population is practicing and that is evident everywhere, from the smell of burning incense to the sights of novice monks walking through the streets.
Seventh, nothing beats sitting on a plastic chair and drinking Angkor beer while watching the world go by over the Mekong River. I met a lot of interesting people during my time there. I worked with several Khmer guys who lived really interesting lives and could, without question, drink me under the table. College students in the States sometimes can't compete with people from other countries in Europe and Asia, believe me.
My best experiences? I don't think any blog post would do it justice. I just can't wait to return to eat some more amazing food, explore new temples, meet new people, have more cathartic experiences, and pass the time along the Mekong. And with that I leave you with this: