This summer, 16 Queen’s College students embarked on a trip to Cambodia. After thirty-four hours of travel including 1 bus, 2 planes and countless skytrains around Singapore airport, the team arrived in the capital city, Phnom Penh. It is safe to say that the holiday feeling of stepping off the plane and being hit by a wave of heat was tenfold. The smells, sights and buzz of noisy motorbikes could have been overwhelming for some but the Queen’s team took it all in their stride.
The following days in Phnom Penh were an emotional roller coaster as we learned and reflected on Cambodia’s harrowing history under the Pol Pot regime; a communist political Dictator that ruled from 1975 and 1979. Pol Pot’s regime oversaw the killing of three million Cambodians; one in four people were killed. Words cannot begin to explain the feelings in the camp following day two’s trip to the national genocide museum (S21). The S21 museum (former torture site) felt far too close to home when learning that it once was a school much like ours. However, the classrooms were turned into cells, playgrounds into graves and climbing frames into gallows. The team met 1 of 16 survivors from S21, one of our Edukid trip ambassadors, whose grandparents were murdered at the site. This pulled everything into perceptive on how recently these horrific crimes took place. Although the trip was deeply saddening the team understood the importance of learning about the history of Cambodia.
The afternoon to follow was full of joy, fun and laughter. We visited a local village. The team split in half with one half touring the village and the other hearing stories from another Edukid ambassador. We learnt how the village was created as fifty thousand people were forced out of their homes in the capital due to an ‘accidental fire’ and re-homed outside of the city. The families had nothing but the clothes on their backs and some tarpaulin given by the government. Twenty-three years later the village is now thriving. We had a chance to meet the local kids in a school set up by Care for Cambodia (CFC – The Cambodian branch of Edukid) that provides free education to those who cannot afford the government school system. We learnt some Cambodian, made art, learnt dances and facilitated the playground’s descent into chaos with games of volleyball, football, cricket and frisbee. This was all going on at once in a space smaller than the Old Music Room at Queen’s!
Day three started much the same as day two as we relived the tragedies of the Pol Pot regime by visiting the ‘Killing Fields’. This an awful place. However, despite the atrocities that happened there, many of the group were able to find some peace, seeing it as a place that is slowly overcoming its dark past. Flowers grew on the trees, birds sang and the staff gave us the opportunity to honour the people that died there. The team were all given bracelets by the Edukid leaders, one to lay as an offering in a place that impacted them and one to keep. Many laid their bracelet in a similar spot.
Once again, you’ll be glad to know the afternoon took a much lighter turn as the team were allowed to explore the Russian market. Most were wary at first but grew into it eventually practicing the art of bartering. Tadhg was by far the best at this, seemingly trying to get everything for $10! A hat? $10, a watch? $10, a full Juventus football kit? $10.
The evening was a good one as we sailed down the Mekong River and ate pizza with some of the Edukid scholars. We heard their stories and told them all about Queen’s. As an icebreaker, they played a roulette game with us. We drew to see if we’d eat traditional Cambodian food from boxes 1,2 or 3. Box 1: mealworms, box 2: crickets, box 3: deep-fried baby frogs. Will W was quick to request a go and ended up going back for seconds on all of them. Hannah described the crickets as, “like sensations” and Tadhg described the frogs as “rather moreish”.
The night sky broke into thunder and lightning as we heard the story of Peniel. A very intelligent young man who was once an orphan and eventually supported by CFC. He now studies food chemistry. He has been accepted to a prestigious internship in Israel to learn about food conservation. He would like to learn more about how to harvest food in multiple ways to come back to Cambodia and teach farmers how to effectively harvest things like mango into not only mango fruits but sweets and mango shampoos etc.Despite being accepted Peniel was told us that he could not afford the fee to enter the course. As a group, we decided to pledge £200 of our raffle money to help him get on the course. We can now confirm that thanks to Queen’s, Peniel is on the course and excited to get going.
The following day the group took a three-and-a-half-hour bus journey to Kampong Takong village (the village that Queen’s are supporting). The team no longer felt the initial nerves of interacting with the students and jumped straight into the action. The playground was once again turned into an organised chaos. Some of the team hosted an eleven a-side football match in a space only big enough for four. One of the goals was the door to the arts and crafts room (luckily Sevin was a fantastic goalkeeper). Others painted faces, which saw butterflies and tigers joining in the games. Some of the villagers took us on a tour around the village. This was a poor area, but it had an abundance of beauty from the huge palm trees, rice paddies and the endless amount of smiling faces that greeted us. As we said our goodbyes, the villagers presented us all with a traditional Cambodian cloth, often used as a scarf or belt. It was an amazing experience to feel the connection built between Queen’s and the village. There is a genuine appreciation that without Queen’s, many of the children would not have been able to attend school at all. Often when you think of the support Queen’s offers, you think of our students, the boarding houses, the teachers and well-being. But now, it is clear to see that Queen’s stretches far further than Taunton as we honour our duty to support those children in need outside of our home.
Following the village visit, the team went back to the homestay. Morale was fairly low at first, when some realised just how basic the accommodation was. Most slept on a mat on the floor, with a net over them and a fan. Air conditioning, electricity, hot showers (or showers in general) were no longer available. This presented the challenge of learning how to wash with a bucket in a small dark toilet. But after a good meal, and a few games of Uno, the morale picked up again with many embracing the challenge of a “western world detox”.
During the next few days, we visited more schools, temples and forest areas of outstanding natural beauty. The evenings were spent playing games like Mafia. A drama game that involves members of the group being killed (all acting) and the others working out who the killer is. Some took turns narrating the game, Toby did especially well with some dramatic deaths. Dawn apparently smiles too much so was somehow always labelled as a killer? On the other hand, Oscar was a prolific member of the Mafia as he bumped off countless others.
On the morning of day six, we set off early to see another school. After two broken nights of sleep, the group’s energy was low. However they were mostly able to save face and give the kids a great morning. The school was the smallest school that we had visited, it was a house turned into a school room. The students had little room for activities. There was a nearby field which we used for sports. We desperately needed to get Mr. Holder and the team over there as the field was uneven, overgrown, and full of cow pats. We also had to navigate the challenge of not kicking the ball in the river. Despite the language barrier, we had the common connection of following each goal up with a Ronaldo, “Suiii!!!”
After leaving the village, we drove towards our second city Siem Reep. We stopped at a beautiful lunch spot which was built on stilts in the river. Arriving at the Siem Reep Spa hotel was like arriving at the Ritz compared to the homestay. Many spent the afternoon chilling in the pool and resting.
Our fifth and final village perhaps had the biggest impact on most of our students as it was completely separated from the modern world that we entered the night before. The central point of the village was an abandoned government school that CFC had taken residence in intending to continue educating the local children. The school serves as a hub for the whole community but was unfortunately in dire need of repair. The roof was falling off, there are no available toilets and the classrooms are unequipped and lacking any life.
We met two local families and they were kind enough to tour us around their homes. The first family we met was Mao and her three children. Her husband tragically passed away in a car accident last year leaving her and the three children with very little. Their house was made of damaged and rusty corrugated iron and consisted of only two rooms for the whole family. They do not own the land they live on and could be asked by the farmer to move at any point. Mao explained through a translator how hard the last year had been for her and her children.
Secondly, we met a family of eight; Grandma, Grandpa and five children ranging from the age of six to thirteen. They all lived in a small hut just out of the village. Grandpa told stories of the time he was shot twice as a prisoner under Pol Pot. He was now unable to work due to the injuries to his hand. Despite the adversity facing the family, they spoke positively about life and the children shared their plans to become, popstars, lawyers and teachers.
Following the family visits, the team made a group decision to buy food for the two families. Everyone clubbed together and astonishingly we had enough money to buy the families three months’ worth of food. The family of eight were also able to buy new school uniform for the children and some new chickens. Mao was able to make some vital repairs to her motorbike and buy mosquito nets for herself and her family. Such an amazing gesture from our students. However, they have decided not to stop there. One group will fundraise to buy Mao the land that she needs to move her home to. The other will raise the funds to repair the school roof to ensure the school remains the central hub of the community.
If you wish to donate to either cause. Please use the following links.
Finally, to top off the trip, the team visited Angkor Wat at sunrise. The site is full of history, beauty and wildlife. It is said to be one of the cultural wonders of the world and it did not disappoint. The time spent watching over the main temple at sunrise felt like a perfect way to end such an incredible trip, even after Isla and Rachael got robbed by a small monkey!
To summarise the trip here’s what the students had to say-
“Cambodia was a grounding experience. Though we enjoyed the temples, the heritage sites, and the windy rickshaw rides, learning about how the country’s complex history still holds a strong grip over its citizens was insightful. As such, those village visits were definitely the most memorable.” – Sevin
“It was an amazing once-in-a-lifetime experience.” – Elizabeth
“The trip was absolutely incredible and something I’ll never forget. It was amazing meeting so many people.” – Toby
“The best thing I’ve ever done!” – Emily
“Going to Cambodia was one of the best experiences ever. It was the highlight of my summer, going to visit the children in the village and helping them. I loved going to the temples and seeing the amazing views and also going to the markets.” – Ellie
“Going to Cambodia was a great experience, I enjoyed learning about the culture and visiting the children. They were all so happy and cheerful and I loved every second of it!” – Katie
“The trip to Cambodia was such a highlight of my summer, I really enjoyed going to all the markets and learning about the history of the country. We got to spend a lot of our time visiting the villages and looking around the schools. It was such an incredible experience and I got such a good insight into their lives.” – Dawn
“A truly life-changing experience, amazing to be able to experience the deep history and culture of the country. Would highly recommend a visit” – Tadhg
View many more amazing photos on Flickr