05 June 2017

PROMO service trip to Cambodia

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Spong, Siem Reap, Stung Treng. Cambodia. I think I am one voice of many that can state with conviction that, as cheesy as it sounds, this was a life-changing experience.

After an early wake-up, a 12-hour flight to Hong Kong, a two-hour layover and a three-hour flight, we arrived in Siem Reap. Slightly tired and disorientated, we quickly forgot that as we each excitedly boarded a queue of tuk-tuks and raced each other to our first hostel. We did not realise at the time that this would be our most cushy accommodation, but we settled in, messing around in the pool and exploring the town. We were then greeted by Steven, our guide throughout our time in Cambodia. He took us to a restaurant, which would become our go-to place whenever we were in close enough proximity to walk there – enjoying Mr Bean playing in the background, Cambodian artists singing English songs over the speakers, and making the difficult decision on whether to have ‘rice with vegetables’, ‘rice with meat’, or ‘rice with egg on top’. We all dragged ourselves back to the hostel, trying to acclimatise to the slight increase in temperature. Falling asleep very quickly in a strongly air-conditioned room, it was the end of a hectic two days which we had started in Solefields car park in Sevenoaks.

Another early wake up to reach Stung Treng around 2pm and meet the UWS team that we would be working with. First, we could not resist discovering the hidden sights and finding a route down to the edge of the stunning Mekong. We then spent the afternoon planning the various activities and games we would introduce once reaching the village of Spong. (We all shared the opinion that we wanted to keep the experience fairly spontaneous and simply see where we ended up once we arrived.) Just by chance, Stung Treng happened to be throwing their River Party, which they celebrate only once every ten years! We were able to immerse ourselves in that cultural experience, with stalls and people in every available space of air, with rides and a stage lit up with lights, with overpowering sights and smells that none of us had ever been surrounded by before.

The next day involved a stressful and absurd journey to Spong. We travelled, just about, over endless winding roads, battling ditches and ground that had been reduced to puddles of mud, and sawing fallen trees out of the way. As soon as we arrived, we all knew that the journey was more than worth it. We were greeted by many of the children, who had come to the school on a Sunday to meet us and show us around. We were all amazed by the thatched, wooden building, composed of a central area and four separate classrooms which allowed 147 children in this remote village to receive an education. That night, the girls experienced their first ‘bucket shower’ in sarongs and we all experienced our first night sleeping in a hammock hanging from the ceiling, closely zipped in by a mosquito net. Every night when in Spong, I would wake up, like clockwork, at around 3am and I would sit on the steps outside the school and stare at the stars. The only way to describe that view is that the sky was closer to a canvas of white with black dots, rather than the alternative. I wouldn’t need something to do to pass the time, I would merely watch as the sky slowly changed from white to orange as the sun rose. Every day in Spong, we had a routine with the children – wake up, watch them sing and raise their flag, play a type of sport, run to our specific classroom, teach/play with them (group logic, music, individual logic and art), have lunch, sing to and with each other, perform our take on a story (such as Cinderella) which they would then recreate, and then dance until as late as possible. As well as this routine, over the days we were shown around their village, got thrown a massive party with music, dancing and games, and spent time with them, forming relationships with the individuals, and not just the collective.

My personal favourite part, although nearly impossible to choose, was the moment when the rain started absolutely pouring, but, to our surprise, this received the most excited and joyful audience. We all let go of any inhibitions and found ourselves running around, playing football, and dancing in this torrential shower. Then came the day to leave, and this became one of the hardest things I have ever had to do. We were all shocked by the emotion that exploded from the children – anger and sadness took the form of actual wailing, and hearing this from those who hadn’t shown even a hint of negative emotion throughout our time there was heartbreaking. We forced ourselves to leave and, once more, began our journey across the ‘Adventure Road’ back to civilisation and electricity.

The last couple of days involved visiting Angkor Wat at sunrise and other temples in Siem Reap which were beautiful and nothing like I had ever seen before. We also had the incredible opportunity to have a quick-stop tour of Hong Kong due to a longer layover. The transition to this futuristic place after our time in Spong was overwhelming and made it that much more impactful. We enjoyed the ferry across the beautiful sea, the unbelievable skyline reflecting onto the water, and the light show projected onto the buildings.

We finally boarded our flight back to London, unable to believe that we had undergone all of those things in only 11 days. Exhausted, emotional, and changed, we landed and returned from our trip to Cambodia.

Tabbi Gault

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