A taste of Voluntourism

Awhile ago I had been searching for volunteer opportunities throughout Cambodia.  Most of the projects I had found were going to cost me and I honestly don’t believe in paying to volunteer.  The essence of volunteering is that you are giving back to a cause that you believe in, helping those less fortunate, and assisting in making the world a better place.  You shouldn’t have to pay to do a good deed. 

After planning my itinerary for the next couple months, I realized that volunteering might not be an option because of my short time in each city and country.  But to my luck, I did in fact get the wonderful privilege of lending a helping hand in Phnom Penh.

The leader, Isaac

My couchsurfing host had a friend named Isaac, who was building a school in a local village and was recruiting volunteers (he was also recently feature in Asia Life Magazine, click here to read the article).  I wasn’t quite ready to leave Phnom Penh and decided right away that I would love to help out any way I could.  The task: Digging a ditch where the water during the wet season(only a month away) would drain so that the children had a place to play.  Yes, I would be digging a swimming pool-size ditch on my vacation (well, I wouldn’t personally dig the entire thing, that would be impressive!) and I couldn’t be happier. 

Getting a workout in the dirt!

The school construction site was located in the South Central (Isaac had lived in California at one point and used this to give me an idea of the type of neighborhood he had chosen for the school, which also indicated the reason why he chose that area) of Phnom Penh.  He had suspended classes until the children of the village had returned the tools they had stolen from him (he pointed to the smallest, cutest little girl and told me that she was one of the culprits who stole a ball and said “Can you believe it?? The littlest girl was in on it!”) and the volunteers were to focus on digging the ditch.

The volunteers digging away

Even though I only was able to volunteer one day, I absolutely loved it.  And I know what you’re thinking.  You enjoyed digging in the hot sun, especially with a bad back?  And no, I did not enjoy that part, but I loved the atmosphere.  A bunch of twenty-something travelers getting together to help something bigger then them.  Dedicating time they could be using gallivanting around the world to shoveling dirt all day. 

I highly recommend getting your hands dirty when traveling.  Its rewarding and can really enrich your cultural experience!

If anyone knows of anyone who needs help, or who has experiences volunteering, in Laos, Northern Thailand, or Vietnam, please send along their information to me so that I can maybe contact them when I’m traveling!  I would love to keep volunteering, even if it is only for a moment!      

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Delving into the Culture of Phnom Penh

I had heard that Phnom Penh was a city that a traveler could get stuck in for awhile.  Even though there aren’t as many tourist sites as say Bangkok, it is the allure of the city and the way of life that draws people in!  I wanted to experience it for myself, of course while I hit the main Lonely Planet stops. 

My first destination in Cambodia’s capital was the Tuol Sleng Museum.  The museum was once an elementary school, but after being taken over by the Khmer Rouge, it was tragically transformed into buildings full of torture chambers, Security Prison 21 (S-21).  It was their version of a concentration camp, and since I haven’t been to any of the concentration camps in Europe yet, this came as a huge shock to me. 

Inside one of the cells in Building A

When I entered my first room, I found a disheveled bed, some torture equipment, shackles, and a picture on the wall of someone who had died in this very spot.  A chill shot down my spine.  I have never been in a place of death.  The atrocities that had occurred here are unimaginable and as I slowly moved through each and every room, I tried not to imagine the horrors that these walls must remember.  That was just Building A. 

Building B was next and the entire first floor consisted of rooms lined with photos of victims.  Some were just mug shots.  Others were taken after they had been tortured.  And others were taken when they were already dead.   I tried to rush through these rooms, but I couldn’t.  I wanted to see everyone (although I tried to avoid the pictures of the dead).  I wanted to commiserate with the victims.  Their terror filled faces were tragic.  I had never seen anything like it.  The second floor housed rows and rows of tiny brick cells, some not even a meter across and about two meters deep, with remnants of shackles left strewn about in the small chambers. 

Apparently the barbed wire was to prevent the prisoners from committing suicide

Building C was a museum with pictures of actual Khmer Rouge combatants who participated in the horrors at S-21.  They were just kids!  Some of the commentaries were by family members of the deceased and others were from the soldiers themselves (of course older and wiser now).  Most of them claimed they didn’t know better, which I’m sure is true, and others had joined out of sheer fear for their lives.  There was also a room that contained actual torture apparatuses accompanied by pictures of them being used.  Quite disturbing if you ask me, but then again it went along with the theme of the rest of the museum. 

The Memorial Stupa for the Victims

After being tortured, the victims were taken to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, my next stop.  The memorial began with a stupa filled with skulls that were found in the fields.  This was utterly mind boggling.  I have never been in the presence of that many human remains.  Underneath the skulls was a pile of clothes that had been scattered throughout the graves.  It just put personalities to the people and really put it into perspective who these people were.  Scared.  Confused.  Terrified.  Mothers were killed with their sons and daughters in the hands.  Children were killed to avoid the revenge they would surely seek for their parents.

I took a walk around the complex (there is a path that follows the border of the site) I wanted to focus on revering the dead.  Even though these weren’t my ancestors, they are someone’s ancestors, and being in Cambodia, I wanted to really understand the history that has made the country what it is today.  On the outskirts, I was hounded by children begging for money and asking if I wanted to take their picture.  Although this has happened to me hundreds of times before, it made me furious.  Here I am trying to honor their dead, and they are asking me for 1000 riel. 

The main gravesites at the Killing Fields

Anyways, despite that speedbump, I made it to the gravesites.   They were deep holes in the earth and I couldn’t imagine being the one to have discovered the thousands of people who had been buried there.  To finish up the tour, I ended with the museum which talked about those responsible for the atrocities at S-21 and Choeung Ek.  Some of them admitted to it, while others denied what they did was wrong.  Some of them died before justice would prevail, while others are undergoing trial.  It was hard looking at the faces of evil and I quickly left.

The corridors of the Russian Market

To see the brighter side of Phnom Penh, I headed over to the Russian Market, which was the market to go to in the capital.  Extremely similar to the Chatuchak Weekend in Market in Bangkok, although considerably smaller, the Russian Market was rows and rows of knick-knacks, clothes, luggage, fruit, and pretty much anything imaginable under the sun.  Of course, I kept finding countless treasures worth buying and after buying a bracelet from Paper wear by Friends  (Fashion Jewelry made from 100% recycled paper and made by parents in vulnerable communities of Cambodia, Lao and Thailand) and an adorable monkey puppet for my five-month old nephew, I had to leave as quickly as possible or else my luggage was going to be even heavier!

The entrance to the Royal Palace

My last notable “Place to See” in Phnom Penh was the Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda, which was definitely nothing to write home about and $6.25 that I will never get back.  I honestly didn’t find anything too special about the place and there were way too many prohibited areas to make it worthwhile.  The palace grounds was peppered with buildings/temples with buddhas and other ancient pieces received by the Royal family and the Silver Pagoda was a beautiful temple with a golden standing Buddha and an Emerald Buddha.

Along the Tonle Sap River

A little disappointed, I decided to take a walk along the Tonle Sap River and check out the scene down there.  It was bustling with people enjoying the sunset, dancing to boom boxes, selling cockroaches, and eating noodle soup.  The local setting down there was a little chaotic with countless beggars, of course taxi, tuk tuk and moto drivers, children offering to pose for pictures for money, while travelers chose from the many restaurants, shops and bars along Samdach Sothearos Blvd.

I thouroughly enjoyed my short time in Phonm Penh.  It would have been great to spend more time there getting to know the city better, but because there are so many amazing things to see in Cambodia, I had to move on.  I definitely hope I’ll be back one day!

I also had the opportunity to volunteer on my last day in the city, but I will write another post about that.   

First Impressions: Phnom Penh

If you don’t want to or can’t get a job, be a moto driver.

That seems to be the motto of Phnom Penh.  I couldn’t walk two steps without someone trying to flag me down asking if I want a moto or a tuk tuk.  Let’s make a deal here.  If I want a ride, I’ll summon you over.  Not the other way around.  My first experience with the Phnom Penh moto drivers was the second I stepped off the bus at the bus station.  One decided that he was going to cling to me, despite my pleas to back off.  I told him I needed to call someone (my couchsurfing host) and that I did not need a ride as of now.  He took this cue to follow me around and standing so close to me that if I moved I would brush up against him.  This is exactly what I did not need after a 4-5 hour bus ride, where my seat did not recline a centimeter (I also had to deal with the guy in front of me who decided to recline his chair all the way giving me about an inch to deal with) and the child behind me kicked my chair the entire time.  I ended up not needing his services and had to shoo the man away.

My first thoughts when entering the bustling city were once again overwhelming ones.  I have a feeling that I tend to get overwhelmed a lot, especially since 1) this is my first time traveling and 2) I’m doing it alone, but I’m proud to say that those feelings do not last long anymore.  There seemed to be market stalls galore (there also seemed to be mobile phone shops every other shop), motorcycles inundating the streets creating chaos at every turn, and people everywhere.  There were barely any stop lights and if there were, they were ignored. 

Bicycles, Tuk tuks, Cars and Motorbikes all trying to get through this crazy intersection!

Well, this is Southeast Asia, so I guess that’s to be expected, but I had not seen anything like this yet.  Intersections were absolute mayhem, with moto drivers, cars, tuk tuks, bicycles and even pedestrians all shooting across at alarming speeds and somehow just missing each other.    Moto bikes were somehow made into makeshift trucks (I wish I had pictures of a few of them, but maybe I’ll get one by the end of my trip) and trucks were piled high with cows, fruit, furniture, or people on furniture (I spotted a truck with about a hundred conference style chairs on it with boys sitting in those chairs). 

Despite the turmoil and sense of urgency on the streets, the city had a laid back vibe and I was eager to become a part of it even if it was for a short while!