By Pearl Chan
I’ve always heard about Cambodia from people around me and I’ve heard and learnt even more about it ever since I’ve decided to go for the December trip. Listening to all these new information that people shared with me after they came back from Cambodia, it really sparked my curiosity about what I’ll be able to experience during the December trip. After all the anticipation, the trip finally took place! It was a 12-day trip from 4th December to 15th December.
On the 4th, we arrived Siem Reap at about 3.20 pm. When I arrived there, I was taken aback by how near the airport is to the hotel we were staying at for the first night because I expected it to be a much longer ride since Cambodia is a much larger country compared to Singapore. Then, I realized that when we travelled from places to places, it was really of short distances as the different places in city are located quite near to each other.
We then spent the next two nights in the Principal’s house that is about a 5-minute walk from Lovea Primary School. During the two nights stay, even though some of us complained a lot, we still persevered through it and I learnt a lot from it. It was really a new learning experience for me as I never knew that in the villages, the sun sets at 5 and they rarely have lights anywhere in the village. Most villagers end their day early and they wake up early as the sun rises early too. Their everyday routine is more or less similar. This also made me thankful that I have a variety of things that I can do in Singapore instead of just following a certain routine everyday.
Here is a picture of us setting up the mosquito nets at the homestay:
Before we made our way into the village, which was a 45 minutes drive from the city, we photocopied 40 copies of a beginner’s English language book and we bought 40 exercise books so that they can practise writing English words in it. We also met up with the church members that are working with us for the Christmas Party and we went to the Bible Society to get bibles for the students and the library that is still under construction. When we got to Lovea Primary School, we saw that the library was still nowhere near completion and we were really taken aback by the progress as the roof of the building still wasn’t up yet. In the end, some of us gave the Grade 4 students English classes where they learnt names of different body parts, while the rest had meeting with the school staffs to find out more about Lovea Primary.
A photo of us teaching the Grade 4 students:
As we taught the Grade 4 students, it made me reflect a lot especially on how we take things for granted. Seeing the students in that class, they can hardly understand any English words and even their English teacher cannot speak proper English. This made me realized that as Singaporeans, many of us take things for granted, the most common thing we take for granted is education. Looking at the students, I feel really bad that we always complain about having to study but in Lovea, even when the students want to study, they don’t always have the chance to. It also changes my perspective and I want to start appreciating every opportunity that I have instead of complaining about the amount of effort I have to put in to do well because at least I have the chance to put in effort to do well, the students there barely have the chance to put in effort, not to mention do well in school.
We also had a mini baseball game session with the kids that didn’t have lessons.
The mini baseball session:
On the next day, we decided to go to the school early to see their morning assembly program. It was something new to us as the way they queued in front of the flags was really different from how we queued up in Singapore during morning assembly. We also found out that the Principal specially held the morning assembly so that we get to see it since usually they don’t have morning assembly.
As I watched the morning assembly, I felt really impressed by the kids. They all lined up according to their classes and even though it wasn’t as organized as the way we lined up in our morning assembly, the way the students did it made it appear organized. After the assembly, the principal also distributes food that he cooked to the morning shift students. During the distribution of food, the students did not fight and the older ones will let the younger ones go first. This really touched my heart because in Cambodia, it would be expected to me if they started fighting just to be able to get the food first. However, they acted politely towards one another. And the young ones are well taken care of.
Their morning assembly:
After watching their assembly, we left Lovea Primary to walk to the English school that is also located in Lovea village. We spoke to the principal, Mr Pagna, who is able to speak English and we found out that his school is holding English tuition classes for the students from ranging from Primary School to High School. We also found out that he is skilled in the technology aspect and he wishes to build a computer lab so that he can teach the students how to use the computer and the students can use it as a skill to assist them in the future.
We then proceeded back to Lovea Primary to help with the construction of the library as there were too few people working on the library, which is one of the reasons why the library was still nowhere near completion.
After we helped with the construction, we continued teaching the Grade 4 students English and we held a mini test for them. We were to point any part of our body and they had to verbally tell us the name of the body part we pointed at. They were also told to draw anyone from the Grade 4 class and the other classmates were supposed to guess who the students were drawing. We ended the lessons at 5 as the school closes at 5.
An example of drawing a classmate:
The next morning, we went back to Lovea Primary to help with the construction again before we continue with the plans for the rest of the day. After helping with building the library, we went back to the principal’s house to interview a 14 year-old boy that dropped out of school after Grade 6. (The education system in Cambodia is like Grade 1-6 is Primary School, while Grade 7-9 is Middle School and Grade 10-12 is High School. After passing Grade 12, they get to go to university.) He has 4 other siblings. We found out that the boy dropped out because there wasn’t enough labour for the farm as his father often fall sick and his elder sister suffered from a disability due to her fall from their house when she was young. He also has a Grade 4 sister in the English classes that we taught. The boy also said that he regretted dropping out. His mother also told us that if given a choice on whom she will allow to continue and further his/her studies, she’ll let the Grade 4 sister to continue study. We also visited his house and indeed, his house was in a much poorer condition compared to other houses in the village.
A photo of this house:
After visiting his house, we went to visit the middle school before heading back to the city. In the middle school, we spoke to a few Grade 8 students that graduated from Lovea Primary and they could speak a little English. Most of the students are from big families with at least 6 members. We also learned that girls have more incentives than guys and they are encouraged to study. One example would be the ‘Room to Read’ that only girls can enter.
When I heard that girls were entitled to more privileges and they are encouraged to study compared to boys, I was shocked. Many countries give more privileges to boys yet in Cambodia, it was the girls that have more incentives in school. But after thinking through, it kind of made sense because working in the farms are something that really require a lot of hard labour and that alone, shows that having guys to work in the farms are definitely more efficient than having the girls to work in the farms. Thus, in Cambodia, girls are encouraged to study and get good results while the guys usually drop out and help their families work in the farms. And most of the time, if a family has more than one child, only one of them will be able to continue studying as the rest would have to help with the farms. However, I feel that the children should really get more opportunities to study and not be burdened by the need to help their parents with the farms especially the guys in the family. This is because despite the family needing more labour on the farms, I think if the children were given the chance to study, they would actually be able to pursue a better future which will in turn allow them to be able to earn enough to take care of the family.
The Grade 8 students that we spoke to:
On the next day, we went to a Korean Mission School, It is founded by a Korean lady that moved to Cambodia about 10 years ago and the school is currently 7 years old. Compared to Lovea Primary, this Korean Mission School is definitely like paradise! The students had a mini and proper playground, they have a good learning environment and their mathematics lessons at Grade 4 were so much more advanced and challenging than those in Lovea Primary. The school also provides free books for the children and it has both kindergarten classes and primary school classes. The principal intends to raise funds to buy the land so that she can continue operating the Korean Mission School. However, the amount of money needed to purchase the land is a lot. Thus, she is still trying to raise more funds and get more people to support her.
The Korean Mission School:
We then proceeded to have a meeting with the church members after purchasing the materials we need for the students on the Christmas party on the 14th. After dinner, we went for a circus show. The tricks they performed were really impressive!
The next three days, we went to Battambang to rest and relax before we continue our work in Siem Reap. It was a 3-hour drive from Siem Reap to Battambang. After we arrived at Battambang, we had lunch and 5 of us went for our cycling tour while the other 2 went to the Phare Circus where they learn more about the school that the performers trained in for the circus show we watched the previous night.
During our cycling tour, we saw and ancient house that lasted for three generations and it was still in good condition! We also learned that there is no one living in the government building that was built in the city, it wasn’t built for the leaders to reside in it.
Our cycling tour:
As for the visit to the school where performers learn their tricks, it was vastly different from the schools in Siem Reap. They had computers and air conditioners! Their library was also in good condition. It was really something we wouldn’t have expected to see in Cambodia. And what’s more, the students don’t have to pay for anything!
We then had dinner and ended our day.
The next morning, we went for kayaking and to our surprise, there were no kayak guides following us and all we had was our kayak and pedals. We had to kaya all the way to the hotel, which took us approximately 4 hours. All of us were exhausted after the kayaking session! We then went for lunch before visiting the killing caves where we hiked for about 2-3 hours before we got to see the pagodas and the Buddha statues. We also saw the killing caves which some of us that went to Phnom Penh’s killing fields before, feel was very different from the killing fields in Phnom Penh. We then hiked back down the mountain and we waited till sun set so that we get to see the bats coming out of the caves that they live in during the day time. And due to our packed schedule, we didn’t get to go for the bamboo train ride as planned in the itinerary. We postponed the bamboo train ride to the next morning before we go back to Siem Reap.
On our last morning in Battambang, before we return to Siem Reap, we went for the bamboo train ride and it was operated by people manually and it’s only a one way track, so when two trains that move in opposite directions happen to meet each other, the one with the least number of ‘passengers’ will have to get off the train and the people operating the train will lift it out of the tracks so that the one with more ‘passengers’ can pass. It was a good experience as despite it being an old way to travel, it was actually enjoyable and the train moved quite quickly even though people operated it manually.
The bamboo train ride:
On the morning after coming back to Siem Reap, we intended to go back to Lovea Primary to help to paint the library. Before we did that, we went to the English school we visited previously to give the hamper to Mr Pagna, the principal. We also went back to Ta Ei which is the middle school where people study at after passing Grade 6. We gave them the hamper as well before making our way back to Lovea Primary. However, the plastering and cementing were all not done and thus, we cant paint the library. Fortunately, we brought to the village the cartons of clothes that we brought from Singapore. We ended up sorting the clothes to prepare for the gift ceremony during the Christmas party on the 14th. We also spoke to the contractor to make sure that he doesn’t delay the construction of the library again.
After leaving the village, we made our way to Road 60 where they have many mini-game booths that people can play games and win prizes. Our objective was to win prizes to give to the students during the Christmas Party’s game session. We then went back to our hotel after winning the prizes.
At Road 60:
On the 13th, we went for our ATV ride in the morning, which took us about one hour, we definitely enjoyed ourselves! After the ATV ride, we took a quick shower before meeting Lovea students at Tonle Mekong for lunch as we decided to take the students to an outing. There were 15 students, they were chosen by the principal as they did well in school. We also brought along 5 teachers and the principal.
Our ATV ride:
After lunch, we brought them to Lucky Mall where we paid for the entrance fee for the mini playground and we also bought them tokens for them to use on the arcade games. The students were all happy as all these were very new to them. This outing to Lucky Mall also made me feel guilty about taking things for granted as I realized that even the teachers and the principal were new to shopping mall as they were scared to take the escalator.
At Tonle Mekong:
At Lucky Mall:
On the last day in Cambodia, some of us woke up early in the morning to speak to a grade 12 student, the village chief and the English school principal, Mr Pagna. We found out from the Grade 12 student that the principal had been paying for her tuition fees. And the reason the principal chose her was because she really wanted to study and her family background is really poor. She also has a few more siblings that are studying. She finds it hard to study in high school now as she has to cycle for 1 hour to get to school. When asked about her goals for Grade 12 exams, she said she just hoped to get C or D. It really took us aback as most people in Singapore would just target for an A. We then learned that it was hard to get an A or a B in the exams. They are graded according to the average grade of the number of subjects that one takes. An overall grade of A ranges from 98-100 and not to mention, there is bell-curve! One example of this would be our guide, Mr Bros, he got 97.98 but his overall grade was only a C!
After speaking to the student, we spoke to the village chief and he is willing to let us come back occasionally to help the school despite us being Christians. We also talked about the bumpy roads and how we can fix them so that when people make their way to the village, they’ll have a better road to travel on. The meeting with the village chief showed us that he is quite receptive as he said that the villagers have the rights to choose their on religions.
After that, we spoke to Mr Pagna again and found out that he wanted to purchase a land for his school and out of the USD 20,000 that he needs, he only raised about USD 230. We also asked about how we could help him and he’s not sure as he doesn’t know if the NGOs that are currently helping him will continue providing funds for his school next year. He is currently receiving help from iHerb and Wide Open Wings (WOW). Thus, if the NGOs decided to stop giving him funds, we hope we can help him and provide some funds for him to operate the school. We weren’t sure if he was willing to accept our help as Christians and when we spoke to him, we were just trying to see if he’s receptive about it and we are really thankful for God’s blessing as in the end, we found out that he will willingly accept our help if the NGOs doesn’t continue to provide him with funds and he doesn’t mind that we are helping his school as Christians.
After all the meetings, we went back to Siem Reap and had our lunch before departing for Singapore.
A picture of a kid in the Santa Run shirt that we gave them:
In conclusion, even though I don’t think we did a lot of hard labour during this trip, I think it’s still a trip that’s worth going for as we found out a lot about the people and the village. And it was also heartwarming to see the genuine smiles plastered on the students’ faces when we held the Christmas party. I hope that God will continue blessing the village so that in the future when I make more trips to Lovea, I will get to see changes that benefit the village and I hope that I will be able to improve their lives bit by bit as much as I can every time I visit.