Gemma Morgan - General Care Projects in Cambodia
Cambodia was my second stop during six months of travel through Projects Abroad. Having just come from Thailand I knew that this experience would be very different.
I arrived full of nerves and feeling very uncertain about things, having just left what I considered to be my home in Thailand and some very good friends. After a variable nights sleep, the next day was my induction to this new country.
My first impression of Phnom Penh was that it was extremely hot, busy and dusty, not to mention the chaos of the traffic. My induction included visiting Toul Sleung Genocide Museum (S-21) the former high school converted to a prison by the Khmer Rouge, and Choeung Ek known as The Killing Fields. I found these visits extremely difficult to cope with. To see what the Khmer people had been put through was very painful and it was a horrible experience, but I also think that it is one that everyone who visits Cambodia should endure. Although difficult, I feel it is vital to experience this to gain some kind of understanding into what the country and the people have been through.
My day also included a trip to the Palace, which was a welcome break from the horrors I had been faced with in the morning and a visit to The Russian Market. So my first day in this new country was very busy and quite hard going and I wondered about my time in Cambodia and whether I would ever feel like I could be happy there.
However my next day turned everything around. I was taken to my placement which would be at the Maryknoll Little Sprouts group homes. This day was special because all the houses had got together to hold a party for the Prince of Denmark who is one of the donors. I was left in the garden of one of the homes and faced with a multitude of children and before long I had a number of them climbing over me. The party was a success and the children clearly had a great time dancing on the stage. After my lunch I went back to one of the houses and played with the children all afternoon, pushing them on the swings, providing numerous piggybacks and then feeding them at the end of the day.
This group home was known as the ECD (Early Childhood Development) House, and was home to 13 children aged between 2 and 5 years. All of the children that are cared for have HIV and are mainly orphans because their parents have died from AIDS. It is quite hard when you first learn this and you feel sorry for the children, but after spending only a short amount of time with them it is easy to see that they are some of the happiest children you will ever meet and it is clear that the carers that spend everyday with them love them all and give them the best care you could imagine.
I spent my two months with these children and had the best time looking after them, no two days were ever the same. The children are all amazing and I fell in love with each and every one of them. As well as being adorable they were also often very mischievous, and never ceased to amaze me in the things they would get up to.
My mornings were spent playing with the children outside, and sometimes we would watch TV - they used to love it when karaoke was on so they could all dance. Then they would have lunch, and a nap. At this time I would go home for my lunch and have a bit of a break which was welcome because anyone who has ever worked with children knows how exhausting it can be, not to mention the extreme heat we were faced with. Why didn't anyone tell me that I would be going to Cambodia during the hottest time of the year?!!
After lunch I would help get the children up from their nap. They were then bathed and I would dry them and cover them in talcum powder (which they loved). Next I would help to dress them, though some were quite particular about which clothes they wanted to wear, often causing tears when they started to fight over a particular t-shirt or dress. Once they were all dressed they would spend the afternoon playing outside and I used to sit and do their hair. The girls loved lots of plaits, and even the boys would get me to put a band in theirs! The afternoon session normally went quite quickly and soon enough I was collected and taken home for the evening.
Away from work we found lots of things to occupy our spare time and got to know the city pretty well. Including going to mediation at Wat Lanka, quiz night at the Lazy Ghecko and sampling their amazing desserts, and happy hour cocktails and delicious pizzas at the FCC. After my initial doubts about being happy there, I soon grew very fond of Phnom Penh and all it had to offer.
Outside of the city there are so many places within the country to visit, even in the two months I was there I didn't get to see everything, but what I did see helped me to really gain a feel for the country and grow to love it. During my stay I visited Kampot and Kep in the south of the country, and Kratie to see the rare Irrawaddy fresh water dolphins in the Mekong river.
Sihanoukville is a must if you want a break from the city and a chance to relax at the beach, however my visit wasn't quite the same as most; me and two other volunteers went there with the children from work - almost 200 of them! Although not the relaxing weekend we perhaps could have done with, it was a lot of fun and really great to see the children and their carers enjoying themselves building sandcastles and playing in the sea. It is something I will never forget.
Finally, no trip to Cambodia would be complete without a visit to Siem Reap and the ruined temples of Angkor. A group of seven of us headed off first thing on a Saturday morning for the long bus journey, and that evening we went to the temples to watch the sunset. Another early start the next day in order to watch the sunrise over the most famous temple, Angkor Wat. It was a shame that our guides' definition of sunrise somewhat differed from ours, however it was still good to get such an early start as it meant we had about an hour before the temperature soared and the crowds became extreme.
Visiting the temples was pretty remarkable, they really are a sight everyone should see, but it was also a tiring experience, and after a time it does begin to feel that you aren't really able to appreciate any more of what you see. Although exhausting I would definitely recommend the trip to anyone, and in the evening we were able to make use of a few of the bars that Siem Reap has to offer.
I will be the first to admit that I had a bit of a shaky start on arrival in Cambodia and had doubts about the whole experience, but once I saw the children it made me realise what I was there for. In time I settled into the house and the city, had a lovely time and made some really great friends, with whom I shared some truly memorable moments.
Leaving Cambodia was very hard; once again I was leaving a place that had become home to me and a group of volunteers that had become like a family. But the hardest part was to leave behind the 13 smiling faces that would greet me every day. It was really one of the most difficult things I have ever had to do, their lives really touched me and it was my pleasure to be able to spend so much time getting to know each one of them.
Cambodia is a country that I grew very fond of, and although you may have to look a bit deeper to find it, it is truly beautiful and the people are amazing and friendly especially considering all they have been through in the past. I had an amazing two months there, so much so that I am already thinking about my return trip to see more of the country and of course to visit my adorable children who I miss so much.
This volunteer story may include references to working in or with orphanages. Find out more about Projects Abroad's current approach to volunteering in orphanages and our focus on community-based care for children.