Khmer Times: Teaching & Learning in Cambodia
Cambodia had never been on my list of places to visit - and I definitely wasn't planning on going this summer. But sometimes the best things aren't planned.
When the person who traditionally leads the school trips couldn't go to Cambodia this year, one of my bosses was a bit distressed about who would take his place. "I'll go!" I said jokingly. Another student worker, my friend Betsy, chimed in and said, "Yes, send us." Neither of us anticipated his response. "Really? Will you?"
So, just a few months later I was on the plane to Phnom Penh. I had no idea what to expect. I knew I would be living in a dorm with some Khmer (pronounced K'mai) students and teaching English, but that's about it. I had no idea what adventures were ahead.
Teaching in Phnom Penh
Without a doubt, the best part of my time in Cambodia was the university students with whom I worked. My English classes began at 7:00am and most days ended at 8:00pm, with a few breaks for meals and, of course, coffee. My students were full of wisdom and laughs - educating me on all facets of Cambodian politics, giving me the history of Khmer dances, teaching me how to make Khmer food, explaining the rituals that take place on Khmer holidays, questioning me about America, and attempting to teach me Khmer words. Khmer is one difficult language. Teaching was, if nothing else, a humbling experience. I struggled through my first few days of building relationships and learning how to explain the difference between in, on, and at. But it was not long before my students were my friends, and they were teaching me much more than I was teaching them. They were truly a blessing to me that I will not soon forget.
Beyond teaching I got the experience of living in a Khmer dorm. Julie, an American woman who runs the dorm, was the image of integrity and selflessness. She set an incredible example to us and was a phenomenal host. While living in the dorm we got to eat two Khmer meals a day - lots of rice, soup, and the occasional durian. We were blessed to live alongside Avy, Piseth, Dara, their families, and 12 university students who have come to study in Phnom Penh. And they were awesome. They showed me around town, taught me Khmer, played games with me, empowered me to eat a chicken head, and became some great friends.
Touring in Phnom Penh
Phnom Penh is not what you would call a tourist city, but there's still a lot of great things to see. On weekends we would hop in a tuk tuk and head to the Royal Palace, a place where locals like to hang out on the lawn by the river and foreigners like to eat. The riverside strip is full of restaurants of every conceivable cuisine, though most dishes have a hint of Khmer flavor. At dusk the Night Market opens, hosting a mix of local and tourist attractions including Khmer food, local entertainment, and - of course - a market.
While we were over there we of course had to visit the Royal Palace, the home of the King and the infamous Silver Pagoda. It was definitely worth the trip to see the ostentatious chandeliers, the intricacies of the pagoda, and the large amount of elephant statues.
However, we should have checked the times before heading to the palace - when we arrived at 11:00 it was already closed for a morning break until 2:00. But no worries, we just walked down the street to the National History Museum, which was awesome. Not only are the artifacts there unbelievably old and well preserved, but its courtyard was a beautiful place to take selfies with coy ponds.
Once we visited those must-sees we stopped by the namesake Wat Phnom. It's a lovely temple with some unique attractions - like monkeys.
As tourists we had to go to the Russian Market, or as our students called it, the Foreigners Market. It's the standard locale to get some sweet Cambodian souvenirs, and perhaps also to be targeted for pickpocketing. But we got some great stuff and visited some cool restaurants in the area.
But the most important site in Phnom Penh is without a doubt the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Choeng Ek killing fields. Tuol Sleng was a school-turned-prison during the Khmer Rouge and housed up to 20,000 prisoners. It is a sign of both how far the nation has come in terms of unity, but also how far it has to go to get away from this recent tragedy that took away so much of its development and huge proportions of its population. Choeng Ek is the site where many of these prisoners were put to death in mass graves and where a stupa filled with their remains now reminds us of the results of hate and power-mongering that should never be permitted again.
Toward the end of our time in Cambodia we finally got out of Phnom Penh and went into the countryside. It might as well have been a different world. Our journey to Kampot province was a beautiful one, defined by miles of rice paddies and idyllic farmland.
We arrived at Samon's Village Hostel about midday and ate lunch while they called a driver who would "take us around for the day." We recruited a girl we met at the hostel and headed out to explore Kampot via tuk tuk.
Our first stop was a cave. We hiked up to the cave for an awesome view of Kampot and to see some ancient cave pagodas that had been destroyed by Khmer Rouge. We then descended into the cave with some young boys who were our guides. Though they kept telling us, "This is the hardest part," a couple of us got a little anxiety about jumping 10 feet down into the bat-filled darkness and we decided to head back up instead of going all the way through. It was a very cool cave nonetheless and would have been awesome if I was just smidge more adventurous.
Next we headed to a pepper farm. Kampot is known for its pepper, and is certainly proud to show it off. We visited a farm and got a free tour of their generations-old organic site, and of course got to sample varieties of black, red, and green pepper. We topped it off with some coconut water and headed on our way.
Our next stop was Kep, a city just a short distance from Kampot. Kep is a stand-alone destination with beautiful beaches, islands, and, what we loved most, some famous crab. We visited the local crab market and then went to eat some crab on the shore. It was the most delicious crab I have ever consumed.
We then headed back to the hostel where we hung out with the hostel staff and some other travelers before heading to our bungalow, styled after traditional Khmer stilt housing. I'd recommend Kampot and Samon's Village to anyone - and I hope to go back to do it again.
At the end of our time in Cambodia two of our friends joined us to go to the main tourist attraction in Cambodia: Siem Reap.
Our first day there we went to the floating village. We had heard mixed reviews, but most of them were good and most people who come to Siem Reap visit the village on water. We, however, did not enjoy this experience. While it was cool to see a floating village, much of the excursion is overpriced poverty tourism that, in my opinion, exploits school children in order to guilt tourists into buying rice for an overly-dependent village school, that may or may not be actually educating the children - it was difficult to tell.
That evening we went to an Apsara performance. All of my students had told me that I had to see the Apsara dance - and they also made sure to tell me that no matter what the Thai say, Apsara is a Khmer dance. This cultural dance was fun to see, and the Khmer buffet we were at was not too shabby either.
The next morning we were up at 4:00am to begin seeing all of the wats, or temples. It started out with sunrise at the famous Angkor Wat. Angkor was full of history and it was just unfathomable to imagine how something of such size and intricacy was constructed so long ago. We then went to Bayon, the temple with all of the huge faces. This was definitely the most fun temple for me to see. We wrapped up this big temple day with Ta Prohm, the temple covered in trees and the set for Tomb Raider. Each temple had its own personality, and they were all incredible.
The next day we went for another round of temples, visiting some of the less popular options. We kicked it off with a fried banana breakfast and a countryside tuk tuk tour. Our day started out at East Mebon, which turned out to be my favorite site - even though one of the guards inadvertently tricked me into offering a sacrifice to a god there. I repented immediately after.
We visited several other temples - some with moats, some with cows, some with dangerously steep stairs - and were totally worn out by noon, even though the whole region is covered with temples that most tourists never see. But we had to call it a day with the temples because we had some silk worms to visit.
Cambodia is known for its silk, so we went with Artisans of Angkor to see all of the facets of the silk farm - from the worm to the scarf. While we were waiting on the bus to go to the farm we also got to check out the woodshop and some stone masonry what the artists, many of whom are disabled or considered at-risk, were working on. Then we took a bus to the farm. Though I had some mixed emotions about touring the area and taking pictures of a lot of women working in a dark room, it was definitely interesting to see how the silk was made and how much skill it takes to design silk pieces on a loom.
Both nights we went to Pub Street and the Night Market. Pub Street is a tourist locale that is full of fun foods, free Apsara performances, and various activities. After dinner we headed to the Night Market. It was definitely a tourist market and we got some good deals, but it was much more expensive and much more difficult to haggle than in Phnom Penh. But they had crepes, so it was a fair trade.
I barely scratched the surface of all there is to do in Cambodia - and all the friendships I have yet to make. I'm so glad that this impromptu trip opened my eyes to this part of the world and the people who are here. I loved my time in Cambodia and hope to one day return and explore some more.