Twenty-Four Teens and a Teacher in Siem Reap, Cambodia

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Cambodian youth in training at a Cambodian monastery.

As our plane begins its descent, Larisa, a twelfth grader, calls out to her classmates in the seat in front of us: “Is that flooding down there?”

I lean over towards the oval plane window to take a look: Down below vibrant green rice paddies merge into rippling murky brown water with patches of green poking through—those patches, I slowly realize, are the tops of palm trees.

“No, that’s not flooding,” Joshua, a ninth grader, calls back over his shoulder.

“Bet you ten dollars it is,” Larisa retorts.

Larisa wins the bet. We are landing in a country under water.

This year’s rainy season in Cambodia had been unusually heavy and started in the third week of September. Seventeen provinces in the northwest and along the Mekong River in central and southern Cambodia were heavily flooded. More than 1.7 million people were affected by the flooding and 168 people were killed. As of October 18, 2013, when our plane was making its descent into Siem Reap, the flooding had only partially receded. Some 231,484 houses, 1,242 schools, 78 health centers and hospitals, and 533 pagodas were flooded. Roads, bridges and infrastructure were damaged.

In Siem Reap province, where we would be spending the week as part of our school's community service outreach program, the waters had partially receded, but the roads were still choked with mud and many of the villages were flooded.

Our assignment this week was to construct a village house out of panels made of woven dried palm tree leaves for a type one poor family who had lost their home in the recent flooding. The classification of type one poor is applied to families who cannot feed themselves on a daily basis and have no savings. Our other assignment was to teach English in a local English-language school that served type one poor families. Our students would teach in shifts and also help cement the school’s boundary fence, which had been built from recycled plastic bottles stuffed inside a chicken wire frame. As a believer in John Dewey’s model of leading students in experiential learning by doing, I was planning to throw myself into the work alongside my students.

Our school’s students enjoy mostly a typical upper class Hong Kong lifestyle. They live in luxury climate controlled apartment complexes, whizz through the city on the ultramodern MTR, and shop in air-conditioned malls. Many grow up with live-in Filipina domestic servants, euphemistically referred to as “helpers.” It is possible in Hong Kong for a kid to grow up never having washed a dish; never having done their own laundry; never having cleaned their own living space; and especially not ever having done manual labor. The goal of our school’s community service project is to broaden our students’ horizons by pushing them out of their comfort zones and placing them within impoverished communities where they can give to the community while at the same time learning about a different culture.

Our plane lands and we walk across the small runway towards the airport terminal. My co-teacher and I distribute the visas each student needs to enter Cambodia. As the kids slowly snake their way through immigration, each of their foreign passports is checked and double-checked, and then stamped with three separate stamps pounded out in those familiar rhythms of the bureaucratic machinery of a former totalitarian state. I feel as though I can smell the old stale blood of the killing fields in the air. I especially smell it when a stern-faced woman in her fifties, dressed in an austere olive-colored military uniform, demands that I tear out the visa I have neatly glued inside my passport and present it to her for closer inspection. I sense the paranoia in the many forms we must all fill out simply to enter the country.

As I stand at the immigration booth, stared down by the officer, who could have been one of the Khmer Rouge child soldiers for all I know, I remember entering Hong Kong for the first time just a few months ago. Two friendly girls in comfortable uniforms giggled and gossiped in Cantonese behind the glass of the immigration booth as they took people’s passports, breezily glanced through them, and waved them on with no hassles. One of them gave my passport a perfunctory glance, noticed my work visa, pulled out a tin box covered in pink Hello Kitty stickers, unlocked the box with a key the size of a child’s jewelry box toy key, and placed one neat stamp inside my passport.

Once through Cambodian immigration, we head outside, where we are met by our ground operators, David and Jo, and their local Cambodian guide, Lim. David Whitaker and his partner started Indigo, a company that offers tailored school trips, seven years ago. Their vision is to make a difference in impoverished communities while at the same time opening the hearts and minds of teenagers to the possibilities of contributing to solutions to global poverty by participating in making change happen. Indigo makes connections with non-governmental organizations on the ground and with local people, embracing the belief that “if you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. If you teach a man to fish, you feed him for the rest of his life.”

David explains the ground rules to the students and tells them that this week they will have the opportunity to make a difference in a poor family’s life.

“You can either chose to hang back and behave as tourists and go home having had a nice time, or you can throw yourselves into the experience and feel that you truly contributed something of yourselves to the global community,” David says to the group.

Our group has already contributed before we even left Hong Kong. We collected 70 pairs of blue jeans and lugged them to Cambodia. We would be donating the jeans to a group of type one poor women who had been taught to sew and who now work in a sustainability project sewing toys, laptop covers, iPhone pouches, and other touristic items out of old jeans and fabrics. The money these women earn enables them to pay for basic needs for their families and pull them out of poverty.

David tells us that we have about two hours before the sun goes down. We will use them by hopping into tuk-tuks—a three-wheeled cart attached to a motorcycle—and riding to Bantheay Kdei Temple, a 1,000-year-old temple in the jungle.

During our week in Cambodia tuk-tuks will serve as our transportation, along with our feet, David explains. Few roads are paved in Cambodia; therefore, most of the time we will be rattling across the countryside on clay roads riddled with deep pot holes and crevices: An obvious example of how war has impeded Cambodia’s infrastructure, even decades later.

The views from a tuk-tuk are amazing: oxen and water buffalo graze in the muddy rice fields, roadside establishments sell barbecue foods, chips, and petrol poured into recycled whiskey bottles; vibrant green rice fields beg to be harvested; traditional village houses built from palm tree leaves and suspended high on stilts sway gently in the tropical breeze. Most amazing is the ingenuity of Cambodian transportation. It is not unusual to see husband, wife, and several small children—even infants and toddlers—balanced on one motorcycle bouncing down the pot-holed roads. Children maneuver large rusty bicycles through the dirt, often balancing a sibling or two on the backrest or on the handlebars. I was amazed at the local people’s sense of balance, and at the same time saddened that it took that much physical effort for them to travel even the shortest distances. As we travel across the countryside in our tuk-tuks, everywhere I see large blue tin sign posts with the same message: Cambodian People’s Party. The signs are suspended over the entrances into people’s village homes; planted in the ground on metal posts at almost every intersection; loom over roadside eateries and meeting places.

We arrive at the temple. As we wander around the temple ruins, against a backdrop of the incessant sound of chattering monkeys, I am struck by the beauty of the temple stones, colored green from moss and fungus bred by Cambodia’s relentless heat and humidity, toned orange from the light of the setting sun.

As we leave the temple, I fall in step with Lim. I ask him what the signs mean. What was the Cambodian People’s Party?

“Basically,” Lim answers “they are the old Khmer Rouge under a new name. The old perpetrators are still around, but they’ve changed their colors. Recently we had a democratic election in Cambodia and the opposition party won, but the Cambodian People’s Party rigged the election so it looked as though they had won. The people want the United Nations to get involved, but nothing is happening.”

I recognize this scenario from my experience in post-Soviet countries. The dynamic is familiar; the evolution of a party that had committed mass murder against its people morphs into a more passable political form.

“They are simply power hungry,” Lim continues. “The Cambodian People’s Party is full of Vietnamese Communists. There are two things the Cambodian People’s Party refuses to fund adequately, and that is medicine and education. Teachers are paid $25 a month and teach in over-crowded classrooms. It is not uncommon to have 60 pupils in a class. The students who have nowhere to sit crowd in the back of the classroom hoping to catch a few words of what the teacher is saying. The Cambodian People’s Party doesn’t want people to be educated. Because of these conditions there is a teacher shortage and a shortage of schools. Children must go to school in shifts: morning or afternoon. Doctors are also underpaid, and in the countryside health clinics are understaffed. There is no medical care for women. Women give birth to their children in their village homes assisted by their mothers and sisters. Because rural people drink the water around their homes, the infant mortality rate in this region is one in five. Where we have installed water filters, the infant mortality rate has gone down to one in seven.”

I ask Lim if the Cambodian People’s Party has a lot of support from the people, considering their signs are everywhere, even on private property.

“People are afraid,” Lim says. “It’s because of the Khmer Rouge. Everyone remembers. When the party tells a villager that he will place a sign on his land, the villager does not dare disagree.”

As we walk the path out of the jungle, Lim tells me about his background. He is half-Chinese, which makes him an ethnic minority in a country of Khmers, a people descended from Indians. His father, during the years of the Khmer Rouge, was rounded up into one of the rural camps. Because he was of Chinese heritage, he was declared an “enemy of Angka,” or the “organization,” a vague name chosen by the political group that had seized power in Cambodia. At the camp, he was forced to marry a Khmer woman, Lim’s mother, in a wedding ceremony in which thousands of single men and women were brought together and paired up randomly by race and married by the Khmer Rouge. These couples did not even know each other before they were married. They were paired off at gunpoint by the Khmer Rouge in a strange ethnic cleansing ceremony intended to mix up ethnicities and gene pools. However, despite the conditions under which they were married, Lim’s parents lived together happily until his father died a few years ago. They raised four children.

“My mother is not beautiful,” Lim says, “she has very brown skin and a flat nose. She is from the peasant class. My father was from the upper classes.”

I am surprised by Lim’s candidness. Why tell a complete stranger like myself, whom he'd only just met, something that personal?

Later, over dinner at the hotel, David explains that Khmer people are exceedingly open, honest, and transparent, and say things that westerners might consider rude or too personal. They do it innocently and they mean no harm by it. He gives an example. He had not been in Cambodia for half a year. When he came back to lead a trip, his Cambodian guides met him at the airport, pointed at his stomach and said, “Your stomach is getting fat, David.” It was an observation, not an insult, David is quick to add, emphasizing that Cambodians simply express what is on their mind and what they see without reservation or filtering. Meanwhile, in the West, we perceive any remarks about our bodies, other than compliments, as rude.

A few days later I experienced Khmer openness and hospitality first hand. We went to the Night Market, a market place oriented towards tourists in which one could buy anything from Khmer silk woven scarves and tablecloths to foot massages. I bought a traditional silk tablecloth and scarf from a vendor that Lim assured me weaves all her own silk in the traditional Khmer style. I was taking a long time choosing the color and pattern, and during that time I had a friendly conversation with the young woman who wove and sold the silks. She urged me to buy another scarf. I declined, joking that on a teacher’s salary I could not afford that many scarves. Later, walking through the market, the same young woman came running up to me, telling me she had been searching all over the market for me.

“I like you,” she said brightly. “You came to Cambodia to help us. Please, let me give you a gift.”

She led me to her stall and insisted that I choose another scarf, but this time as a gift. She modelled different colors and styles for me. Her friend jumped in and began competing with her for me to choose one of her scarves from her table. In the end, I chose a pale blue and orange scarf, which she wrapped up for me and handed to me with a blessing, palms pressed together. Already on our first morning in Cambodia we are off to the village where we will be building a house. David and Lim introduce us to At and Tia and their four children. They lost their home in the recent flooding. They were a type one poor family, which meant that they often went without food. At night Tia would fish to feed his family and sell whatever was left over. At stayed home with their four small children. She was pregnant with their fifth. Before we arrived, the villagers had hacked the palm tree leaves off the trees with machetes, shimmying up the tall trunks to reach them. Then the leaves had to be soaked in water for a week to make them insect repellent. Then each leaf was folded over a long piece of bamboo and woven together with a bamboo cord. We would use wire to weave the palm tree leaves securely to the frame from both sides.

We are split into work groups; our Cambodian guides teach us our tasks. One group is assigned the job of nailing together bamboo frames. Another group will weave flaps of dried palm tree leaves onto the frames. At the end of the week, we will raise those panels onto the frame of the village house on stilts, and nail them into place. At the end of the week, we will have built a house for one family.

As our groups works, curious children, half-naked, naked, or dressed in ragged bits of clothing, watch us from a safe distance. They are the six out of seven who survive their infancy. The children laugh, play, giggle, like children anywhere. Some of the teenagers in our group are very good at engaging the children and carry them around on their shoulders, showing them card tricks, laughing and playing with them.

I am truly proud of our students, especially the girls. They throw themselves into the work, methodically performing the tedious repetitious tasks in the hot sun without complaint. Many of the students hold a hammer in their hands for the first time that week. Not one student shirked their work or complained. Everyone understood. The poverty around us is obvious: men wearing loin cloths for lack of any other clothing (I even saw a man wearing a woman’s flowery blouse with ruffles); pregnant women carrying heavy loads or working knee deep in murky water harvesting rice; women cooking rice for families of five or six in a clay pot outdoors on an open flame. Our Cambodian guides explain that Khmer people only considered food cooked outside on an open flame tasty, but still, this did not make the process any easier, especially during the torrential afternoon rains. Often I need to pause in my work to clean up a scratch or put a Band-Aid on a cut. I discover that our students often trip and stumble when walking on the dirt roads, and have poor balance when carrying construction materials. One day we go out bicycle riding on the dirt roads and several students crash and hurt themselves. My students explain that only on these school organized trips do they have the opportunity to spend time outdoors. Back in Hong Kong they spend hours at their desks studying, and when they do take breaks, they prefer to relax with a movie or socialize online.

In the afternoons our group would work in the English School and our other school group would go to the village. The English School was founded by Anthony and Fiona, a couple in their forties from Australia. Anthony and Fiona are examples of those rare individuals who live their dream. They are from Melbourne and both held down corporate jobs, working for an Australian electrical utility. They worked long hours, traveled often for work, and after a decade of this lifestyle, grew tired of the rat race. They decided they needed a change, so they both trained as English teachers and went abroad to teach in China for a year. The idea was to get away from it all for a year, one year, and then go back to their old lives. While in China they took a trip to Cambodia. It was love at first sight. They realized that they had discovered two loves that year: a love of teaching and a love for Cambodia. Both were more satisfying than serving the corporate world. While on that trip they decided that once their teaching contract had ended, they would return to Siem Reap and start a non-governmental organization to help the local people. They have been in Siem Reap for eight years now and are raising their two sons, ages 6 and 2, in the local community. Their older son is fluent in Khmer, English, and French.

The couple opened up a few local touristic businesses and used the profits from those businesses to create an NGO they call HUSK. The goal of HUSK is to raise the level of poverty in the Siem Reap province by focusing on improving living conditions in two villages; educating children to become fluent in English, so that they could find employment in the Siem Reap tourist industry; and supporting public health through building health clinics. Many projects have been undertaken by HUSK, assisted by students working with Indigo.

Besides building the village house and working at the English School, two other projects that we learned about were the vertical farming project and the water filter project. Poverty in Cambodia happens when a family does not own land or owns very little land. HUSK brings PCP pipes into the villages and erects structures that create three tiers in which families can grow vegetables inside the pipes for much needed vitamins. They also install water filters to purify the water that is used from local ponds, streams, rivers.

My favorite project is the English School. Using an enthusiastic, student-centered, active call and response approach, Anthony and Fiona teach village children English in grades one through eight. Because students in Cambodia only go to school half a day, the other half of the day they are welcome to attend free English lessons. The students are enthusiastic and eagerly cycle long distances to come to the English school. Anthony and Fiona show love and concern for the children, know all their names, and are passionate about giving through teaching. Classes take place in two cool, shaded, cozy cement classrooms built out of recycled plastic bottles. Outside of the city of Siem Reap there is no trash collection. Therefore, mountains of plastic bottles litter the countryside. Villagers burn the plastic, which causes noxious fumes; cows and water buffalo try to eat the plastic and die; the bottles clog up the water supply. HUSK started paying villagers for every plastic bottle they brought to them. They accumulated tens of thousands of bottles. Teams of students and local Cambodians then stuff the bottles with plastic debris and fit them inside chicken wire frames. These frames are then cemented over and painted. Because of Cambodia’s tropical climate, insulation is not needed. Plastic does not biodegrade. The structures are timeless. I am observing one of my groups of students enthusiastically teaching a class, when a young Cambodian man sits down beside me. Immediately, small children encircle him, eager to demonstrate that they could count to ten in English. This young man, who I will identify as Balam, had recently begun teaching at the school. Soon our conversation drifts into politics.

“The problem in Cambodia is that the Khmer Rouge killed off the intellectual class,” Balam says. “Those who managed to survive the killing fields are too frightened to express themselves. They hide. We are trying to rebuild the country from nothing. This is our work.” Balam explains that he is a member of Cambodia’s dispossessed because one of his uncles had worked for the American Embassy before the Khmer Rouge took over. His was an intellectual family who had to live underground when the Khmer Rouge were in power, and who are still cautious about revealing too much about themselves.

David told me that Cambodians do not like to talk about the four years of mass murder that took place under the Khmer Rouge when at least four million people were murdered. He maintains that Cambodians are a cheerful people who do not want to dwell on past evil.

When I ask Balam about the killing fields, he confirms that the Khmer Rouge mass murders are a taboo subject. “We cannot talk about the killings publicly,” Balam says, “but not because we do not want to or because it is too painful. The Cambodian People’s Party uses the propaganda that we must all move on and forget bad things in the past. But they only do this to cover up their crimes and not be held accountable.”

I ask Balam how he learned English. He explains that like many young Cambodian men, as a teenager he was sent to live with Buddhist monks. The monks were educated and taught him English.

Our guide Lim told me that he lived with the monks for three years. Because the monastery he lived in was a popular tourist sight, he took advantage of the situation by conversing as much as he could with foreigners. I had to laugh at some of the uniquely American phrases Lim used, such as, “Don’t be a wimp,” or “Push the pedal to the medal.” He had never been inside an English speaking country, and yet he knew more idiomatic phrases than the average American. He had collected them all from tourists.

As we are talking, a small child climbs into Balam’s lap and wraps his arms around him.

“I love teaching these children,” Balam says, “they are Cambodia’s future.” On our last morning in Cambodia our guides bring us to a local temple to offer alms to the monks. We are given careful instructions on what we should do. We must sit on the mat with our bodies in the half lotus position and with our palms together and raised at the level of our eyebrows. When the monks come, we may not look at them, touch them, or talk to them. We must listen to their chanting and then each take a bowl of rice and make our way down the line of monks, standing before us in their ragged orange robes, oldest to youngest, and scoop rice into each one’s rice pot. This is a tradition that dates back thousands of years to the times of Buddha. It is a gift. An opportunity to speak the names of one’s ancestors softly while distributing rice to feed their spirits. It is a time of blessing—just as this opportunity to witness a glimpse of Cambodia from the inside has been a blessing for me and my students. When my turn comes to give alms, I whisper my own children’s names and ask for blessings for them.

This essay is a chapter from my book DIGGING A HOLE TO CHINA: A MEMOIR ON TEACHING AND TRAVELING. Available on amazon at:

Weaving the walls of the village house.
Carrying the new walls that the students have woven.
Our students and people from the village celebrating that the house was now finished!
House on the shores of Tonle Sap Lake
Cambodian graves.
Working on the village house.
Interior of Angkor Wat.
Wat Bayan Temple
Cambodian boys studying at a temple school.
Rice paddies in the village.
Boats on Lake Tonle Sap.
Phare, the Cambodian Circus
Phare, the Cambodian Circus
Encroaching storm.
Ta Prom Temple
Ta Prom Temple
Wall carvings on Ta Prom temple.
Ta Prom temple
Ta Prom temple
My students teaching at the English school.
Students at the English School.
Village child.
Children on Tonle Sap Lake.
Houses on Tonle Sap Lake.
Family living in Tonle Sap Lake.
On Tonle Sap Lake.
House boats on Tonle Sap Lake.
On Tonle Sap Lake.
On Tonle Sap Lake.
House boats on Tonle Sap.
On Tonle Sap.
Mother and child on Tonle Sap Lake.
Lake family.
Sunset on Tonle Sap.
Tourist boats on Tonle Sap.
Poor families on Tonle Sap pose with snakes to earn money from tourists.
Inside Ankor Wat temple.
Bayan Wat Temple.
Temple Snake
Student traveling in a tuk tuk.
Tonle Sap lake house.
Temple wall painting.
Sacred sculpture decapitated by the Khmer Rouge at Angkor Wat.
Wall carving at Angkor Wat.
My students.
Bayan Wat
Tonle Sap Lake House
Floating lake offering.
Recycled bottle wall.
Kitchen inside a village house.
Cambodian village child.
Sharing lunch on the work site.
Village road.
Young monk in training at Angkor Wat.
Children playing at a temple.
Dancers on the walls of Angkor Wat.
Roadside eatery.
Entering Angkor Wat.
Cambodian gas station.
Cambodian graves.
Group photo with students at Angkor Wat.
Working on the village house with students.
Laima Vince at Ta Prom Temple.
Lim demonstrating outdoor Cambodian cooking.
Our student with Cambodian children at a temple.
Students riding to the village in an ox cart.
Cambodian political notice in the village.
English school playground built from recycled tires.
Students riding in a tuk tuk.
Tuk tuk driver.
Cambodian village house.
Walking back after building the house in the village.
Cambodian water buffalos.
Weaving the village house walls.

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