We arrived in Cambodia and were met by our local guide Mr V. One of our first stops was the King's Palace to learn about the history of the king, civil war and the religious practices of Buddhism and Hinduism. We saw the Royal Palace, pagodas and some beautiful architectural feats. After this, we visited the S21 prison or the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. The site was a former secondary school which was used as Security Prison 21 by the Khmer Rouge regime from its rise to power in 1975 to its fall in 1979. The girls learnt about the challenges faced in this country, saw some history of what took place and met and talked with two survivors before visiting the ‘Killing Fields', a grim reminder of the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge regime. Despite revealing some harsh aspects of Cambodia's history, it helped the girls to understand why the country has struggled with a younger and less educated population and with many poverty issues.
Camp Beng Pae
We took a four-hour bus ride from Phom Penh to our first camp and Beng Pae. Along the way, we stopped at Spider town, where the teachers and one or two students ate a fried tarantula, one of the delicacies. It was actually not too bad at all. Soon after, we arrived at camp and were greeted by the lovely camp manager Han. He gave everyone a camp orientation of how to use the bush showers and toilets. Girls set up their 'rooms' which were divisions in a massive longhouse with mattresses enclosed by a mosquito net. It certainly was basic living, a reminder of what typical Cambodian life is like.
Han took the group around the local area, explaining the impact of Camps International’s work on the local community and where wells and toilets have made a big difference to the lives of many families. We then went to a local monastery and received a traditional water blessing from the monk for our week of work. We all sat on the stairs thinking we’d get a little sprinkle of water before being completely doused!
At camp Beng Pae, the girls were separated into two groups to complete two massive projects. The first group made concrete rings, dug two holes to create space for a septic tank and another to build a toilet. The second group made moulds for rings that eventually built a well. It was extraordinarily hard work but such a reward to finish these and present them to the local community. While at Beng Pae we enjoyed traditional Cambodian food, learnt some basics of the Khmer language and made Cambodian bracelets - an important activity to teach skills of tolerance, patience and persistence. Afternoon project work involved preparing posters for the local schools featuring numbers, the alphabet, animals and fruit to help with learning English. We visited the local school and in small groups, the girls taught the Cambodian children the alphabet, numbers and some of the older children learnt how to write full sentences.
On the final night, we had an amazing little party (dancing) with the local community who came to our camp. We sat and talked with the local families, played games and learned some traditional dancing.
Camp Beng Mea Lea
At the second camp Beng Mea Lea, we spent mornings completing project work in the local community. At the school, we cleared and levelled the land and tiled the pavement. We even made the tiles using concrete moulds. We also made small flower pots and a huge water pot for collecting rainwater. These projects were hard work but extremely worthwhile for the local people.
Our afternoon activities teaching young children basic English including numbers, the alphabet, shapes, colours, and more were thoroughly loved by the St Cath’s girls. The older children learnt about emotions and past and present tense, verbs, adjectives, singular and plural words. Our students followed lesson plans and delivered the lessons to the children as well as playing some games. This was brilliant.
We had raised some funds before departing on our trip and we were lucky enough to purchase a bike and deliver it to a girl in need. She had been living at the school as her home was too far away - now she can go home and get to school each day on her bike. We visited a local lady, (67 years old) who is living in a tin shed and looking after her seven grandchildren. She struggles to get by each day. We left her with a donation of money, 40kg of rice, salt and soy sauce to last her family for four months. It was inspiring to hear how the very poor are still happy despite their circumstances, and that material things are not as important when you have community and heart.
The end of our trip took us to the city of Siem Reap, beginning with a tour of the war museum. The girls learnt more about the war and impact of the land mines on the local people. It is overwhelming to learn that more bombs were dropped on Cambodia than were dropped throughout WWII! This was a thought-provoking visit and really helped the girls to understand why the country is still so affected today.
We went to see Phare, the Cambodian circus, a combination of theatre, music, dance and modern circus arts that tell the story of Cambodia. These artists are from a vocational training centre called Phare Ponleu Selpak which helps develop skills among those living in poverty and also troubled young people. Over 1,200 people learn skills in this school. It was great to see this incredible show and how the nation is working to help support the needs of their young people.
Our trip to the Angkor Wat complex included a tour that focused on three different temples. The girls were really interested to learn about Cambodian religion; both Hindu and Buddhist and the cultural features of the 12th-century architecture.
The Cambodia trip was certainly a challenge with hard work in high temperatures and humidity each day, but it was also very rewarding. Our girls clearly learned so much about this country breaking the bonds of its violent past. Our in-country leader Han was full of wisdom and he taught our group plenty of life skills. He left us with a brilliant message saying “You don’t have to have things to be happy. You just need community.” How true.
A service trip really is an incredible way to help students to push through challenges, gain perspective and understand the world. It is some of the most powerful learning that can take place. As Ralph Waldo Emerson stated: “The purpose of life is not just to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honourable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference”. We have made a small difference and it feels good to have done so.
Quotes from some of the Year 10 girls:
“The things I learnt and the emotions I felt throughout the trip made the experience that much better.”
“The whole experience has changed my life and made me more grateful and has opened my mind to doing more things like this in the future.”
“This adventure was one of the most challenging things in my life, but in the best way possible.”
“It was unforgettable and undeniably positive.”
“The extent to which we were able to engage with the community and culture was incredibly refreshing and I have never been able to learn so much.”
Have a look at our photo album.
Ms Sarah CharlesService Education Coordinator | Humanities Teacher
An Anglican day and boarding school
for girls, Kindergarten to Year 12. Founded in 1856.
26 Albion Street Waverley
NSW 2024 Australia
Telephone +61 2 8305 6200