Gavin Alexander - Culture & Community, Khmer Project in Cambodia
Okay you’ve been looking at the Projects Abroad brochure reading about Cambodia or on the internet trying to decide which is your best option in the time you have available. A lot of that all depends on the reason you’re coming over here but if a large part is to experience the culture then you can’t really beat the Khmer Project.
If you’re planning to spend some time volunteering over here it’s a great way to get a feel for Cambodian culture before you start your placement and a chance to pick up some of the language before you get a room full of children asking a thousand different questions in Khmer. On the other hand if you’re looking for a real taste of the country in one month it would be difficult to find a better package deal or put together a more rounded introduction yourself.
One of the advantages of the Khmer project is that it’s a rolling programme, so you can join at any point you want without missing out on things. Three of us started the project together back in November joining another couple of volunteers, one having started the week before and the other the week before that. So we got a run down on some of what to expect but not everything.
Well what can you expect? It’s difficult to explain without going into too much detail but discounting weekends about half your time will be spent in and around Phnom Penh itself. Part of this will include 5 language sessions which I really advise you to take advantage of and go through them again in the evening (you don’t have to but I find myself reaching for the phrase book for some of the simpler things I feel I should have picked up by now). You’ll have the opportunity to try your hand at several traditional crafts over the course of a month, some you might get the hang of some not, don’t feel embarrassed, watching me try to mould clay pots in a village in the middle of the countryside provided entertainment for both volunteers and locals alike but the tables turned when it came to the cooking so it all evens out, especially if you just relax and enjoy it.
The other half involves several bus or long moto rides away from Phnom Penh, the first of which for me was a visit to Siem Reap and out to the temples of Angkor, the biggest temple complex in the world. These temples have been described thousands of times far more eloquently than I can in such a short space but there’s a reason all Cambodian currency and the Cambodian flag (the only one in the world with a building on it) carry depictions of the temples - their pure unrivalled beauty. I found it quite humbling to experience the ingenuity and skill of man, the patience and power of nature so intertwined both, complimenting and conquering each other at the same time. It’s also hard to think so many people in the world don’t even know it exists. If that all gets too much for you don’t worry, when you return to Siem Reap for the night time to you can escape from it all in so many ways. There’s an abundance of restaurants, bars and shops to suit all tastes and budgets, on one of the nights I’d recommend you make the effort to find the night market for the chance to walk away with souvenirs at prices you’ll be hard pushed to find elsewhere.
It’s highly unlikely that on any other organised tour you’ll truly experience rural life or be made to feel as welcome as on the Khmer project. The villages in particular are the poorest areas of the country with official reports stating that at least 30% of villagers live below the poverty line (to be clear that’s the Cambodian standard poverty line not western cultures). This doesn’t change the level of hospitality extended to you as guests and as you walk or pass through the villages on motos or tuk tuks you’ll be greeted by smiling faces and a thousand hello’s from anyone that sees you, especially the children.
In Phnom Penh and in the apartments where all volunteers are based you’ll experience one style of Cambodian food but in the villages it’s different again, if offered don’t be afraid to try, I’m quite a fussy eater but I haven’t refused anything yet and I’ve liked most of it. Village life is a long way from easy, up before dawn, eat and then off to the rice fields to spend the day planting or harvesting the rice for the majority of them, and when you’ve spent some time doing this yourself you’ll also understand why they go to bed early and sleep well. Most of the children attend school but many of them work in the fields before or after school as well and in one of the villages there’ll be the opportunity to teach English to a class in the evening.
It was the day after this I discovered just how much the children value any opportunity to learn. After lunch I was watching two of the boys from the class the night before just sat around talking, one of them had difficulty with some of his pronunciation so I asked them if they wanted to practice with me for a while. With this they ran to the classroom and sat down, by the time I walked over to the class three more of the children (who had been looking at the “westerners” from nearby) had joined them, within five minutes the class was half full and by another ten there was no room left and these kids had to go back to school in the afternoon. So if you feel a little shy about standing up there, just stop and think about what it means to them.
Without a doubt you’re going to have your camera with you, be polite and ask first but when you get chance take some pictures of the people you meet. Owning a camera is way too much of a luxury for the villagers and developing the photos just as bad, so take the pictures and get them developed when you get back to Phnom Penh (It costs about US$1 for 10 prints) and even if you don’t go back to the village yourself the project coordinator (your guide and translator) will be back there with the next group on the project.
Okay that leads on well to another big advantage of the Khmer Project; throughout most of the month you’ll be accompanied by the project coordinator, who speaks good English, is knowledgeable about Cambodian culture and history and happy for you to ask questions or to discuss issues. It wouldn’t be possible for him to translate everything that is said and if you have a question or come across words that he doesn’t know have a little patience and he’ll do his best to find out for you. Don’t forget, everything you do whilst on the Khmer project works two ways, not only are you learning but the more you pass on about your own culture you don’t just educate the people you meet but make it easier for the next volunteers.
On the Khmer project you’re going to have the opportunity to see some of the colours, some of the sights and beauty of Cambodia, you’ll witness some of the hardship that many people still endure and feel a lot of the warmth and pride that most Cambodians have for their country and those who visit. To sum things up, this is not a complete immersion into Cambodian culture and society but it will give you an overall feel that you’d be hard pressed to find anywhere else.