Cambodia: A trip to remember

Written by Ms Claire Chan, ECDE Lecturer

Being able to volunteer in Overseas Community Projects (OCP) have always been something I had wanted to do. The opportunity came one day when a fellow lecturer, Ms Ann, asked if I was able to take her place for the March 2019 OCP trip to Cambodia. I agreed without hesitation.

Having never been to Cambodia, I did some research about the country and its history to have a better understanding on the situation in Cambodia. It aided in my preparation for the trip. Furthermore, I had colleagues who shared with me their OCP experiences, which helped me a lot in understanding the living conditions in Cambodia. As much as I tried to prepare myself mentally and lowering my expectations on what to expect while in Cambodia, what I was about to experience first-hand was nothing close to what I have prepared for.

During the trip, the weather was one factor that we all had to get used to.  March was the dry season in Cambodia where temperatures soared up to 38 degrees. Furthermore, Cambodia was experiencing draught due to little rainfall and water was limited. We had to be very wise about our water usage. Cambodia is a developing country, which meant that there would be times when power outages could occur a few times in a day. That information came to me as a shock because the closest I have ever experienced in Singapore was merely a power trip and the electricity would come back on in seconds once the switch was on. In all honesty, I was hoping that we would never have to experience any form of water shortage or power outage during the trip although I knew at the back of my mind that such a request would be almost impossible in. True enough, we experienced power outages almost daily, some lasting for as long as 2 hours or more.

Another realisation on the vast contrast between Cambodia and Singapore was the living conditions. As we drove through the village en route to Kampong K’dei, I noticed that many houses were built out of natural materials such as wood or even dried leaves sewn together to create a roof.  What caught my eye was that most houses were built on stilts.  Our Cambodian counterpart, Mr Ly Heng, explained the reason behind such structures.  During the rainy season, floods are bound to occur and having a house raised above ground would help protect the belongings of the villagers. Furthermore, during the dry season the house becomes very hot and humid due to the lack of proper ventilation. Therefore, people would sit under their homes to keep cool. I thought it was an interesting sight because such houses do not exist in Singapore as most of us live in homes with proper ventilation and electricity.

The overall itinerary of the trip was eye opening as we got to experience building a classroom, teaching and interacting with the children at Wat Kandall Primary School, as well as donating food to the less privileged in different parts of Cambodia – namely Svav Thom Village, Ta Phrom Village, Prey Nor Kor, Tool Dach Village, HIV Village, dumpsite, slum.

However, the place that left the deepest impression in my heart was during the food donation drive at the dumpsite.  My heart already went out to them when we were told that these people and their children lived and worked at the dumpsite. Furthermore, Mr Ly Heng mentioned that these children did not go to school. As an educator, I know the importance of education and how it affects the child’s development when such opportunities for learning are not provided. These children may have wanted to learn but never had the chance to and the thought of that broke my heart, wishing there was more that I could do.

At the dumpsite the Japanese students bought slippers for the children. I witnessed an incident where the mother of two boys took the slippers away from them and directed them to get more. At that time, it was evening and the sun had already set therefore the volunteers could not identify who they had already given the slippers to. Many children started crowding round the volunteers, extending their arms to reach for the slippers. It was a sight that broke me down further as back in Singapore, children would not react this way for a simple pair of slippers that cost very little. It made me reflect how fortunate children in Singapore have been to the extent that they take things for granted. 

The trip far exceeded my expectations. It has helped changed my perspective on life especially after witnessing the people at the dumpsite who had so little but yet they were willing to give up their food bags to those who needed it more in exchange for clothes. Even so, they did it with smiles on their faces. 

OCP has allowed me to reflect on my life and to be thankful for everything and everyone that I have crossed paths with. I am also truly thankful for the students that I have been on this trip with because there were many times that I felt really down and homesick but their energy and positivity inspired me to press on. The students have been nothing short of cooperative, encouraging and helpful towards one another and their bonds grew stronger over the days in Cambodia, especially when most of them did not know each other before the trip. Since being on the trip I have witnessed the HSS spirit in each and every one of these individuals and I am proud to be a part of it myself.