Hello from Phnom Penh! We’ve had another jam-packed week here in Cambodia. Our last few days at PTD in Battambang included a field trip to the Phare Ponleu Selpak Circus, which is run by a nonprofit arts school that helps disadvantaged children. We really enjoyed watching all of the complicated acrobatics. Although we were sad to leave the children and staff members we befriended during our time at PTD, all of us were really excited for our visit to Angkor Wat in Siem Reap.
On our first full day in Siem Reap, we woke up before dawn and took tuk tuks to Angkor Wat where we watched the sun rise over the temple, which was stunning. The temple complex was not what most of us expected. We had no idea how ridiculously large it is; at roughly 500 acres, it’s the largest religious complex in the world. During our one day visit we weren’t able to see all of the different temples, but we definitely got a good feel for the enormity and beauty of the complex.
The next day, a group of us visited the Siem Reap War Museum, where our Cambodian guide gave us a bit more insight into the age of the Khmer Rouge Regime.
We arrived in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, yesterday, and today we visited the Killing Fields and S-21 Prison (Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum). Learning more about the Khmer Rouge’s brutality against the Cambodian people took an emotional toll on everyone in the group. “It still seems unreal, how could people do this to their own people?” says Alondra. It’s sickening to think about all the barbaric violence that happened just 40 years ago. Walking through the rooms of tiny wooden cells in S21 and seeing pictures and the clothing of the victims made the atrocities that happened here seem much more real. “Today I feel more grateful to be alive and hope I never have to go through something like that in my life” says George. Tomorrow morning we leave for Kampot for a mangrove restoration project and some kayaking and paddleboarding.
We started off the week by travelling by van from Phnom Penh to Kampot where we worked with the mangrove conservation project. Being in a remote village was a nice change after the busy city. An awesome Cambodian guy named Sela led us through our week. On our ride to Kampot, all 13 of us along with Sela and our driver were jam-packed in a small van with our huge duffel bags. Needless to say, it was a tight squeeze. Luckily, Sela taught us a popular Cambodian song that made the time fly!
The mangrove project was located along a saltwater river. The buildings were on stilts along the river, bordering dried-up rice fields. It was stunningly beautiful, and we all welcomed the breeze that floated in from the river . We arrived at the site in the afternoon and immediately got to work. We were in charge of filling up plastic mud bags where mangrove seeds would be planted. Our work site was basically a mud pit beneath a building on stilts. As we worked, the river slowly began to ebb towards us. Naturally, when you put a bunch of 18-20 year olds in a mud pit, a mud fight will ensue. The work session ended with all of us covered in mud and huge smiles on our faces. The river was right next door, and we all jumped in to clean off.
The next morning, we took a quick boat trip down the river to collect mangrove seeds, which we would later plant. This activity included Sela and a few others climbing the mangrove trees and shaking down the seeds. The rest of us stood hip-deep in the water and collected the seeds. The mud at the bottom of the river was extremely sticky, and we all kept on sinking down. It was a fun way to start the day.
Our main project for the week was to build a boat out of recycled plastic bottles. Our goal was to create a functional boat that would inspire the community to make use of the plastic waste. Cambodia definitely has a littering and pollution issue, so we felt that making this boat was very important. We quickly jumped into the project and worked really hard to construct a functioning boat. In the evening, we took a long boat ride to the Gulf of Thailand where we swam at sunset. It was definitely a once in a lifetime opportunity.
We also had a chat with the head of the conservation project, and he taught us the importance of planting mangroves. 90% of the adults in the community are fishermen. Their livelihood depends on the abundance of fish in the river.
Mangroves provide an important ecosystem for fish and other sea creatures, and they help increase the biodiversity in the area. We were all very happy to help!
On our second morning, we headed out to the ocean to plant our mangroves into the sea. You have to use your heal to dig a hole into the mud, and then place the baby mangrove tree into the hole. At night, we were invited to join a local Cambodian party in a rice field. Speakers were blaring popular Cambodian music, and phones were used as strobe lights as we all danced with the locals around a camp fire. My favorite part was when all the kids started to dig their heels into the ground at a specific part during a song. We all had no idea what was happening, but we followed along. At the end of the song, the person with the deepest hole won. We realized that the kids were mimicking planting a mangrove tree!
On our final day, we tested out our plastic bottle boat, and it floated! We adorned it with a bottle cap Cambodian flag, and left it for the village to use. It was a very fun project. Overall, we all really enjoyed our time at the mangrove project.
Up next, we had a few days at SUP Asia, where we paddleboarded and Kayaked. When we got there on Monday, we paddleboarded (some of us kayaked) through the trees, seeing an interesting variety of plant life. The following day, we went to a pagoda, where we say around and talked on the paddle boards for half an hour in that stunning setting. That afternoon, we went on a boat ride to a beach, where everyone had some good relaxation time, or if your name is Phong, climbing banana trees. The next day, we big farewell to SUP Asia (who treated us very well btw), and we went to cross the Cambodian-Vietnam border! The trip started fine, albeit half an hour late due to a couple running late (or on Chris time as it’s been known this trip). An hour later, we were at the border. Some lady walked on to the bus, asking for our passports, which seemed rather suspect. However, to the recommendation of the other travelers, we gave them up, and within half an hour we were in Vietnam!