Setting Goals, Hopes and Expectations in Cambodia

Written by Amanda Martin and Samnang Pak, 2014 Southeast Asia Cities & Sanctuaries Program Leaders.

Crossing into Cambodia is like stepping back in time, especially at the border. After spending their first day in Southeast Asia (SEA) wandering around the developed, but different streets of Bangkok, our Cities & Sanctuaries team were in for a bit of a surprise as they entered the dusty and developing world of Cambodia. The two countries share so much in common, including a border, but are very different. Recovering from a civil war mere decades earlier, Cambodia has a long way to go before it resembles its neighbor. But it is a fast learner!

For many in our group, this trip is their first time beyond the boundaries of home and the comforts of familiarity, but they love every second of it. We must admit, we were a bit spoiled staying at one of the most happening guest houses is Siem Reap, but hey, you can learn by a poolside too!

We were finally able to slow down the pace by a couple of notches and really start with the BIG questions. What should we eat? Where are we going? What will we see? Why are we here? Why did we choose Southeast Asia? What do we hope to accomplish? Why did we choose Operation Groundswell?

ES Team at AngkorWith those questions in mind, we went to explore one of the most magnificent feats of mankind, the temples of the Angkor Empire. The Khmer Empire dominated the SEA region from the 9th-13th century and is considered a point of pride for all Cambodians even today. There are over 300 temples throughout the region but the highest concentration of temples can be found in the Angkor Archeological Park in Siem Reap.

The temples were built by the kings who had declared themselves “god-kings” and were places of worship to the deities of the time. Due to trade with India, they were greatly influenced by Hinduism at first, but later by Mahayana Buddhism. The construction of the temples themselves and “bas-reliefs” found throughout are a reflection of this religious transition. Today, over 90% of the Cambodian population practices Theravada Buddhism, but in Khmer culture many of the Hindu stories from the Ramayana continue to be told.

Jenna Soberano at BayonWe watched the sun rise over the magnificent Angkor Wat, the largest stone religious monument in the world. We explored Ta Phrom, a temple being supported and destroyed by the massive trees weaving their roots through the foundation of the ancient ruins. We walked along the Elephant Terrace and were beckoned by the smiling faces of Bayon at Angkor Thom. We conversed with monks amongst these sacred walls. We were blessed with Buddhist sayings. Above all, we were in perpetual awe of the wondrous things mankind is capable of creating. We wondered, what will our generation would leave behind?

The landmine museum was also a must see while in Siem Reap. Aki Ra, a former child soldier of the Khmer Rouge, has dedicated the rest of his life to demining Cambodia, which was one of the most heavily mined nations in the world. The museum is a collection of the thousands of mines he has disabled and collected over the years. The revenue from the museum supports children who have themselves been victims of landmines. It was a sobering experience, but one which had us once again walking away Learning Khmer from local childrenin awe of the individual. How will we help make change?

A picnic of fresh chicken wrapped in lotus leaves in front of Angkor Wat and an escapade with some monkeys left everyone exhausted and exuberant. The monkeys loved to drink water straight from our water bottles! One of the monkeys was so comfortable with a participant that it had decided to have a pee on his shoulder. The locals say this is lucky…. we are not so sure.

Now in a remote Cambodian homestay, we are waking up to the sound of chickens and tractor engines heading out to the fields at dawn. Practicing our language skills with the local experts (the primary school children) and dancing through the night under the thick sky of stars, the group is soaking up local life. Today we are going fishing, Huckleberry Fin-style, and hoping to catch enough food for lunch.

Taking time to reflect on our hopes and fears, our goals and expectations, amongst the jungle shaded ruins of The simple life in rural CambodiaBanteay Chhmar, a 12th century Angkorian temple, we can’t help but feel small, yet infinitely connected to the world all around us.  Connected to time, to Cambodia, to humanity and to one another.

When we asked what they wanted out of their experience with OG, the group’s responses varied, but shared a common thread. What do I want? I want to push my boundaries. I want to challenge my comfort zones. I want to understand what it means to be global. I want to experience a new culture and people. I want to learn and to teach. I want to find a spark that will help keep me perpetually inspired.

We all came for a different reason and from a different place, but now we are on this journey together…

Until next time,
2014 Southeast Asia Cities & Sanctuaries