At the top of Doerng Raek Mountain

No Snake for Lunch

Written by 2015 Southeast Asia: Cities and Sanctuaries

Banteay Chhmar – a rural community in the northwestern province of Banteay Meanchey, Cambodia – is home to the lesser known Banteay Chhmar Temple, which was built by King Jayavarman VII during the Angkorian period. This region was also one of the last strongholds of the Khmer Rouge. With the Community Based Tourism organization (CBT), we stayed at local homestays, explored the ancient temples by foot and bicycle, learned some Khmer language basics, took a bumpy ride on a cuyon or ‘modern cow’ (a common form of transporting people and goods), and helped the kids and teachers plant trees in the local schoolyard.

Working with Ockenden

In the latter half of our stay we worked with Ockenden Cambodia and community members to plant 4,000 trees over five days. As part of a larger project to plant 37,000 trees around Cambodia, the benefit of these trees will be many. They will strengthen the banks of the canals where they are planted, create economic opportunity and food sources for surrounding communities once they start to bear fruit, and attempt to combat Cambodia’s ongoing challenges with deforestation. We met local farmers who have been beneficiaries of Ockenden’s permaculture education program and gave them some extra hands to complete various tasks around their farms and gardens. As a reward, we hiked up the nearby Doerng Raek mountain to the Thai border, which is still marked by an outdated signpost as ‘Siam’. In true OG style, we were the first group of foreigners this trail had ever seen – it is definitely not a trek listed in any guide book.

Surprise breakfast at Banteay Chhmar Temple

In these 10 days staying and volunteering around Banteay Chhmar, we learned and experienced more than we could have imagined. We’ve been challenged physically and emotionally. Our eyes were opened to the realities of Cambodia and its history. Our expectations and understanding of sustainable tourism and community development took on whole new meaning. In an attempt to put our experience into words, we asked the crew two questions – What was the most challenging for you? What was the most surprising? Here is what we heard:

“Battling my emotions – trying to put things aside and remember why I am here and what I am doing. It was surprising to see the appreciation that the kids had for helping us plant trees.”

“It was challenging getting used to the heat and especially working in the heat. I am surprised at how I adapted to staying somewhere entirely new and different to me.”

Working with Ockenden

“The physicality of the work and working through exhaustion in the heat with blistered hands was the most challenging. At the same time, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the volunteering experience – it was great to be doing something so inarguably beneficial. I had never held a hoe before, much less planted thousands of trees. Another surprise was my interest in farming, along with seeing how community members who have been farming for years are still learning new tricks of the trade.”

“The lack of rain has created challenges around coordinating projects. Seeing and feeling the anxiety amongst community members and farmers has shown me the importance of rainfall and how dependent crops are on the rainy season.”

“Eating the same thing every meal [some variation of rice or noodles], and the surprise that I was able to do it.”

“Being away from computers and internet and out of my personal tech bubble has been the most challenging. Computers, internet and smartphones definitely exist here, but I see them used for different purposes. Tech bubbles don’t seem to exist in Banteay Chhmar.”

Working with Ockenden

“The most challenging was adapting to working in the heat. I loved how kind, happy, welcoming, and excited the community was to meet us and have us there.”

“Pushing through the heat. The most surprising was how involved the kids were, how energetic and enthusiastic they were to be outside.”

“I was challenged and surprised in the adjustment I had to do in what I think is right or important to what the community knows to be right or important.”

“Working through the heat with enthusiasm or energy (EGE! Enthusiasm generates enthusiasm!). Having my assumption turned on its head when the snake purchased on the side of the road would be for controlling pests in rice fields, not for our lunch.”