So my last week in Cambodia was very different to the rest of my time there, and as such I thought it would be an interesting story to share.
My last week in Cambodia just happened to fall on a week-long public holiday. This isn’t that out of the ordinary… the Khmer love a good public holiday or two and some months it feels like the days off outnumber the working days! However, it was ideal timing and a break very much welcomed by myself and the other fieldworkers after a hectic few weeks of teaching.
The holiday was for the Buddhist festival ‘Pchum Ben’, or Ancestors Day, a festival during which all the Khmer go back to their provinces to spend time with their families. This meant that all of us fieldworkers had to come up with a plan of our own as there would be no students, BEC staff or dormers left in Phnom Pehn to keep us entertained for a week.
I personally had two options- go to the province with my students or go spend a week at the beach with the other fieldworkers. It was an incredibly hard decision to make- I was the only fieldworker able to go the province, and whilst I was excited at the prospect of getting to experience the real Cambodia, I was also a little intimidated at the idea of roughing it in the middle of nowhere, completely out of my comfort zone, with no one that fluently spoke my language. Then there was the beach option- a guaranteed, easy, enjoyable week with people I’m comfortable with doing things I’m familiar with- I knew I would have a great time but it was my last week in Cambodia and I was a little turned off by the idea of spending it having such a normal, western holiday. So, being the indecisive, non-committal person I am, I compromised… and did both! And what a week it was…
The trip to the province began with a three-hour moto ride, which is far from ideal from a comfort point of view but definitely a cool way to watch the city turn to green, green countryside. Finally, when Sam On (the dormer who was driving the moto that I was on the back of) started pointing out things like “this is the road to my primary school- it floods during the rainy season and my brother and I would have to take a boat to school”, I knew we were almost there. And so began three days of authentic rural Khmer adventure. I met relatives of my students. I attempted communication with said relatives using my limited Khmer (much to their amusement). I danced at traditional parties. I drove a motorbike for the first time (and by motorbike I mean a bicycle with a motor…but hey, it counts for something!). I walked through ricefields. I waded through ricefields. I drove a giant tractor. I cruised around in a boat. I got bogged in weeds in a boat. I shared a bed with my student’s grandmother. I got eaten alive by mosquitos. I got saturated by rain. I was unknowingly presumed to be the barang (foreigner) wife of my student. I ate dog. I watched the gentlest student I knew slaughter a duck for our dinner. I wrote letters in Khmer. I visited three pagodas. I was stopped from crossing the Vietnam border by angry policeman. I injured my head attempting to wash myself using a bucket. I hand washed my clothes.I slept on the floor. I rode on the back of a moto with a live chicken attached to the front. And I loved every second.
(Above: Driving around in the tractor with my students)
I am well aware that when the highlights are summarised in writing they hardly sound like highlights. However, those few days were genuinely some of the best times I had in Cambodia. It was truly incredible to get away from the city, away from other foreigners and normal creature comforts and truly experience what it was like for my students growing up in the province. I learned so much, my students took such good care of me and I felt like my some of my last few days in Cambodia were spent making memories I couldn’t have made anywhere else. If anyone reading this ever gets an invite to join a student at their province, do it. It can be intimidating and really chuck you out of your comfort zone but it truly is an unforgettable and super valuable experience.
After I farewelled my adopted province families I rode the three-hour moto ride back to Phnom Pehn, followed by a five-hour bus trip out to the beach town Sihanoukville, after which I took a 40 minute ferry out to an island off the coast called Koh Rong Island. And so began the second part of my adventurous final week.
This part of my trip was remarkably different to my time in the province, and whilst both parts were equally enjoyable this one more closely fit with the stereotype of an incredible holiday abroad. For three days I relaxed in the most beautiful paradise I have ever experienced. Each morning was spent sleeping in (an absolute luxury for a fieldworker!), walking to the local beach-side café hut for a delicious breakfast and then laying in the sunshine or swimming in the ocean for the rest of the day. Our nights were spent in hammocks and restaurants, chatting to locals and watching the fairylights reflect on the calm ocean. One evening we decided to go for a night swim and chemical reactions in the water caused it to sparkle and glow as we moved around in it, it was absolutely incredible.While it rained on the mainland the skies were blue and empty on the island. The water was warm and ridiculously crystal clear. All the accommodation and eateries were right on the beach and surrounded by lush rainforest. Everyone who worked on or visited the island had the same chilled, friendly islander attitude, so we easily made lots of new friends. It was so refreshing to get away from the hectic city lifestyle and spend time relaxing in such a breathtaking environment… plus I was happy to be working on my tan so that I could arrive back in Australia looking like I actually did just spend 6 months living in South East Asia!
(Kohrong Island: Beautiful Beaches and Baben Buddies)
It was hard to leave but eventually we made the journey back to Phnom Pehn, shortly after which I began the longer journey back to Australia. I was so grateful that I was able to finish my six-month Cambodian adventure with such an incredible week of new experiences. I know that I am so lucky to have been able to do so much, from seeing what it is really like to grow up and live in the Cambodian countryside to living it up on a luxurious tropical island, I really got an ideal snapshot of all the excitement Cambodia has to offer and was able to leave with the satisfaction of know I really had just lived through a once-in-a-lifetime experience. From the bustling, hectic, dirty city, to the green, picturesque, simple countryside, to the breataking, dream-like, paradise of tropical islands, Cambodia has a ridiculous range of things to do, see and learn. I insisted to all my students that I was too tough to cry when I left, yet I have to admit I didn’t stay true to my word. Such an incredible place is difficult to leave, a fact I had been told by many people but didn’t truly understand until I experienced it for myself. However, there’s always next time- and there definitely will be a next time- and I hope that many others people take the opportunity to go experience it for themselves too… it is an adventure you can never forget!