I am now just over two weeks into my first ever teaching experience so I thought it was a good time to give an update. I arrived in Siem Reap late on January 29th, spent the night at a really nice hostel – swimming pool, hot shower (clean, good water pressure, excellent drainage… you never get all of this in one hostel!), clean bed, good air conditioning, cafe with a great food selection. Anyway, I spent a lazy next morning there and then took a tuk-tuk to ECC School (Education Center for Community), about 6 kilometers south of Siem Reap in Po Village.
Even after all of the travel I’ve done in the last five months, it’s hard to prepare mentally for such a drastic change in lifestyle, not to mention living conditions. To describe the first couple of days as overwhelming is a bit of an understatement, but looking back on it now (two weeks a veteran), I’m actually pretty proud of how I handled myself. I only got about a quarter way to having a breakdown, but pulled myself together pretty quickly, and never really questioned whether I would stay or not. And that’s because of the kids. Pictured below is my bedroom and bathroom.
The volunteers here (ranging from 10-15ish) teach English classes daily at ECC School, where we also live, to kids ranging in all ages and levels. ECC School is an NGO that provides free English classes for anyone who wants to come, mainly the kids in this and the surrounding villages. We also teach English classes at the public school down the road – I have three fifth grade classes there which meet Monday/Wednesday/Friday. It is my understanding that public school in Cambodia is very affordable, around $3-5 for three months. Some of our kids go to public school during the day and ECC at night (most ECC classes are at 5 and 6 pm), but many kids do not attend public school at all, helping their parents with business or taking care of their siblings during the day, and coming only to ECC at night.
The surrounding village itself has become one of my favorite parts of this experience. The walk to and from public school, about 10 minutes, really lets you see into the lives of the local people. Every walk is something new, both good and bad. Children bathing in buckets, giant pigs trotting down the side of the road, ten year-old kids on scooters with all their younger siblings piled on, kids getting hit by parents, dead, dying, frying, and drying fish, a beautiful temple full of monks, 25 cent iced coffee in a bag, crocodile farms, roosters, ducks, filthy Sarah McLachlan commercial-worthy dogs, a variety of houses on stilts due to the 6 month rainy season, and always many high-fives from the kids.
The kids are HIGH ENERGY, enthusiastic, generous (many bring gifts and share snacks with the teachers), smart, funny, and confident. They love to ask questions “What is your name?” “How old are you?” “Where are you from?” “How many brothers and sisters do you have?” “Do you have a husband?”. They call us teacher which comes out as “tea-cha” or more often simply “cha!”, always yelled. And they enjoy when we try to learn things in Khmer – I quickly learned to count to nineteen, I always forget twenty, and they get a kick out of hearing our terrible accents, but I think are very appreciative that we show an interest and try. This month’s focus is on food which has been really fun to teach. Lesson planning was really overwhelming at first but I think I’m starting to get the hang of it… review, lesson, exercises, game!
There is also a basketball hoop at the school and I’ve been having a lot of fun playing with the kids before class. They are SO bad, but they try hard and they look at me like I’m on the globetrotters when I spin a ball on my finger.
Weekends are free and I’ve been taking advantage of that. My first weekend I took an overnight bus with some other volunteers to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. There we toured the killings fields and S-21, a notorious security prison now known as the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. It is shocking to me that prior to leaving for my trip I knew nothing about what happened in Cambodia from 1975-1979. Here are some very high level notes for those who don’t know much, if anything, about what happened here and as well as the aftermath and current situation:
- During this time the ruling party was overthrown by a communist-backed party called the Khmer Rouge (translates to red Cambodians). In just under four years between 1975 and 1979, the Khmer Rouge killed roughly 25% of Cambodia’s population, about three million people. Photos are from one of many “killing fields” in Cambodia. This is the one I visited near Phnom Penh, where the inmates of S-21 were sent to be executed.
- The entire population was forced out of the cities and into the fields to work on rice plantations and build irrigation systems. Families were split up with many kids becoming soldiers, learning to shoot, and planting land mines that the country is still working to uncover.
- The killings were mainly focused on the upper class and/or educated population, and anyone who was associated with the prior government party. The Khmer Rouge envisioned a communist utopian society with one class, the peasant class, who through agriculture would produce everything Cambodia would need to be self-sustaining. Not only would they kill those under suspicion, but their entire families as well. This made rebuilding the country especially hard as the 25% who were killed were the most educated. The country was left with no teachers, doctors, lawyers, engineers, etc., so Cambodia has had to rely heavily on Thailand and Vietnam for assistance, which is expensive.
- Many of those who were arrested were tortured into confessions stating they worked with the KGB or CIA or some other group under suspicion of undermining the revolution. Of course most were innocent but a common phrase of the Khmer Rouge was “better to kill an innocent by mistake than spare an enemy by mistake”. By the end the cadres (soldiers of the Khmer Rouge) were so afraid of being called under suspicion themselves that they all began to turn on each other. It became a “kill or be killed” society.
- To me, what happened in Cambodia stands out from other similar acts of genocide because it was Cambodians killing Cambodians. It wasn’t race, religion, or even culture. The question of why has haunted Cambodians ever since.
- The Khmer Rouge were eventually overthrown by Vietnamese and Cambodian revolutionaries in 1979 and Vietnam occupied Cambodia, essentially running its government, for the next ten years.
- The current prime minister of Cambodia, Hun Sen, is the leader of the Cambodian People’s Party. He has been prime minister since 1985, making him the world’s longest serving prime minister. In 1979, despite being a major in the Khmer Rouge, Hun Sen was appointed foreign minister by Vietnam in the immediate aftermath of the Khmer Rouge period. The Cambodian People’s Party is regularly accused of various acts of corruption and has majority control over Cambodia’s land, media, and oil and mineral wealth.
- General elections are to be held in July 2018. The main opposing party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), was gaining a lot of momentum. However, the CNRP’s leader, Kim Sokha, was arrested under suspicion of plotting a US-backed revolution and the CNRP was forced by the Supreme Court to dissolve. Now the US and the EU have pulled support in the upcoming election and China has stepped in, which is extremely controversial given China, a communist country, has no idea how to hold a democratic election. Regardless, without the CNRP, no other opposing party is large enough to compete with the Cambodian People’s Party so the election is essentially pointless.
If you want to learn more about the Khmer Rouge and related Cambodian history I definitely recommend the book First They Killed my Father, as well as the movie. I am currently reading When the Clouds Fell from the Sky, which is how many Cambodians refer to this period of time, which goes into more detail about S-21 specifically, as well as the ECCC trial process.
I also wanted to give my impressions of the Cambodian people, because I think they are really great, and a bit of a mix between Thailand and Myanmar. My impression is that they have the confidence and willingness to speak with tourists as Thai people do, along with the exceptional friendliness and generosity that I found in Myanmar.
I have also found Cambodians to be much more outspoken about politics and current social problems. In Thailand, almost no one will say anything bad about their king, and in Myanmar no one talks about the horrific issues the country is currently dealing with (and many are likely completely sheltered from it). Perhaps because Cambodia’s darkest history is recent enough that many Cambodians experienced it first hand, or because the ECCC, the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, was carried out so recently (in the last decade) or because many locals are angry about the status of the upcoming 2018 election. Whatever it is, I find them to be outspoken and educated, not only about their own political issues but how they fit into international politics as well.
- Cambodian coffee is really good, especially with a spoonful of sugar and condensed milk…
- They use predominantly USD in Cambodia. If change is less than a dollar they switch to Cambodia Riel (there are no coins). They like their dollars crisp, which is ironic as most Riel are barely holding together.
- There are several “floating villages” in Cambodia due to the monsoon season. These houses are raised by stilts year-round and mostly accessed by ladder. In the rainy season the water from the lake and rivers overflows and comes right up to the bottom of the houses, with boats being used to get around. The main industry is obviously fishing.
- Downtown Siem Reap lights up really bright at night with Pub Street and various night markets. While it has a lot of what I hated about the Thai islands (drunken westerners), the locals hang out here as well and like to practice their English and get to know people from all over the world.
- One night I got to meet up with Daniel and Charity for drinks in Siem Reap. Daniel is the son of Al and Janie Murow, very good friends of my parents going waaay back. They are taking a month off between their jobs as lawyers and visiting Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Malaysia. It was great to see you!
As always I’ll end with food. Living at ECC means we eat what Cambodians eat, soooo it’s a lot of rice, mixed with variations of stir-fried meat, vegetables, and egg, topped with soy sauce and hot sauce. Breakfast is always pineapple and watermelon, sometimes banana, always fried banana, very soft waffles, and French baguette style bread. Most volunteers buy a jar of peanut butter in the city and make peanut butter banana sandwiches for breakfast. With all the rice at the school, in my time away from the school I tend to lean towards western food (hence the picture of avocado toast!).
I’m looking forward to my last two weeks here at the school and to seeing my parents at the end of it!
Also – update to the itinerary, I’ve booked a flight from Vietnam to South Korea in April!