Thursday, October 17, 2013

From Cambodia with Love

It's been quite a while since I've returned from a recent volunteer trip in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Yet, memories of the two-week adventure and the impact it has made on me still linger fresh.

In mid-September, during our semester break, 15 students (including myself), two lecturers and two alumni from NYP's School of Design were given an opportunity to participate in a Youth Expedition Project aimed at beautifying two Cambodian schools. One of them was Sra Srong School which is located near the ancient well-known temple of Angkor Wat. That was where we had to paint the world map in three of their classrooms. The other school was Anchanh Primary School, situated in a rural village where we helped ¬ to set up a garden within the school compound.

For most of us, we have never participated in any volunteering work, let alone in another country. Before we embarked on our trip, we prepped ourselves by producing a scaled-down version of the world map in school and painting it outside a non-profit organisation called Kampung Senang. Additionally, we were taught landscaping at Ground Up Initiative, another non-profit organisation located at the Bottle Tree Park in Yishun. We got to know each other more and became familiarwith the work we would be doing in Siem Reap.

 Soon, the day of our departure arrived. So off to Cambodia, we went!

As soon as we touched down at the airport, we were greeted by heavy monsoon showers. We had a simple lunch of fried rice and spent the rest of our day stocking up on items at a local supermarket and resting in our hotel.

The next day, we headed to Sra Srong School where we were assigned to paint the world maps. This was where we spent the first week of our trip. As our bus entered the school compound, a group of children welcomed us with waving hands and warm smiles on their faces. They seemed delighted to have received us as guests to their school. We started the morning with some basic stretching exercises which the kids gleefully joined in as well.

The first task was to place stencils of the map mural onto the walls of the classrooms. We started by brushing off the dust and dirt from the walls and proceeded to take measurements and create markings so that we could properly align the stencils on the walls. Then we drew the outlines of the countries on the walls.

By this time, most of us started to feel the challenge of working in a classroom with no running electricity as there were no lights to help us see better or ceiling fans to cool us down. The toilets in the school consisted of outhouses with no proper flushing system. Water was obtained from a basic hand-pump behind the school. It was truly an environment different from urban Singapore, one that we pampered city folks slowly managed to get accustomed to.

The following few days were spent painting the various countries as well as giving the oceans and seas a cooling splash of blue. Some of the Sra Srong School students even chipped in to help! We were already making friends with the young and adorable kids, playing and conversing with them as they ran in and out of the classrooms. We were surprised that most of them, even at a young age, could speak English rather well and had good general knowledge of the world, which they had learnt from tourists in the vicinity.

To take a break from our labour, we took a day off, visiting UNESCO World Heritage site, the Angkor Wat. Built during the first half of the 12th century as a dedication to the Hindu god Vishnu, it was later converted to a Buddhist temple. Its impressive stone structures still stand majestically amongst hordes of tourists who swarm the temple each passing day. The monument is the largest religious monument in the world and the Khmer people (Cambodians) are immensely proud of it. It is even featured on their national flag.

Some of my SDN teammates enjoying themselves at Angkor Wat

Overall, it was an interesting experience marvelling at the walls and climbing the steep steps of the temples. The walls were carved with intricate representations of the various well known Hindu epics. It was extremely mind-blowing to think that people of that era were capable of building something so grand and massive. The Angkor Wat is truly a marvel for design students like us.

Our days at Sra Srong were soon coming to an end. As finishing touches, we outlined and labeled the countries on the maps. On our final day, we gave away items such as clothes, books and toiletries to the school students in the presence of the school principal. Then, we spent some alone time writing down our reflections about our days in the school. I chose a nice and quiet spot near the rice field behind the school compound.

As I penned down my thoughts in my notebook, I couldn't help but feel sad to leave Sra Srong. We'd grown attached to the place and established friendships with the kids. As we said our final goodbyes, most of us including your dear writer, shed tears as we waved at them at the rear window of our bus. It usually takes a lot for me to cry but it was that day that I was unexpectedly overcome with emotion.

Our completed work!

Before we went to Anchanh Primary School, our next destination, we spent two days exploring Siem Reap.

First, we visited a guesthouse owned by a Singaporean lady named Diana Saw. She started a business called Bloom Cambodia which makes products such as laptop cases and bags made of recycled materials. Her sole purpose was to provide jobs for single mothers who may sell their children out of desperation, due to poverty. She told us lengthy stories about her struggles running the business as well as her love for the laidback lifestyle in Cambodia.

Bloom Cambodia shopfront

Afterwards, we proceeded to her shop where a small team was making the products on site. It was interesting to see how the items were made. Later that afternoon, we headed to Artisans d'Angkor, a handicraft centre where we could observe how statues, paintings and jewellery were being produced.

We spent the rest of the day and the day afterwards roaming the streets of Siem Reap, shopping at night markets, and savouring traditional Khmer and Western cuisine at the ever-so-lively Pub Street.

Our second half of the trip started with a shaky bus ride on a dirt road to Anchanh. It was through this path that we managed to get a glimpse of village life in Cambodia, away from all the touristy areas. We passed by stilted wooden houses along a sprawl of rice fields, and saw cattle busy chewing on grass. It was a pleasant sight, and a big difference from the concrete jungle of Singapore.

Upon reaching the school, we were given a tour by the principal. She told us how she spearheaded the construction of the school in her village and was immensely proud of it. She showed us the area where she needed help in building a garden for all her students.

We purchased tiles, bricks, cement and some plants and proceeded with work the following days. We had the assistance of some local men to teach us a thing or two about bricklaying, which wasn't as easy as it appeared to be. The sun showed no mercy to us as we toiled in its unbearable heat. To increase efficiency, we formed human chains to help carry cement, soil and bricks from one point to another.

The progress we made in Anchanh was fast and impressive. From an empty patch of grass, we transformed it into a beautiful garden equipped with paths and flower beds.

Soon, our experience in the school came to a close. We gave the school some necessities and in return, the principal wrapped traditional Khmer scarves called kramas around our necks. You could see that she was struggling to keep her tears as she thanked us for making her school a more beautiful place for studying.

Despite it being the holidays, the Anchanh school students came back to see the new garden and take photos with us. It seemed like they couldn't wait for school to re-open. They really wanted to play around in their spanking new garden.

With our job done in the two schools, the only thing we could do was to spend a few days relaxing before flying back home.

Two weeks spent volunteering in Cambodia is probably something I'll never forget. This adventure had been such a thought-provoking and eye-opening experience. I had immersed myself in an environment completely different from urban Singapore. The people welcomed us with open arms and they never stopped smiling. Despite numerous adversities, they still treasure what they have; their loved ones. They have truly taught me that material wealth isn't everything. True happiness comes from within, and helping them paint murals and set up a garden has truly made me happy. All the tears, sweat and fatigue were definitely worth it. I would strongly encourage anybody to go for a volunteering trip if they have the opportunity.

Thank you, Cambodia.

By Isa Norhadi, Year 2, Diploma in Visual Communication

Isa is doing his Diploma in Visual Communication. He enjoys cooking, photography and surfing the Internet during his free time.

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