The Chronicles of JosHan: Siem Reap (Part II)

by smithstandard
Huts on lilypads

*Strap yourselves in folks, this is a long one. Remember, you can read Siem Reap (Part I) here.

So we decided to do volunteer work in Siem Reap.

Let me rephrase: Josh decided we would do volunteer work in Siem Reap. It was not my suggestion, nor was it me pushing for the experience.

The plan was to spend six days playing our part in building a house for a family (I refer to these people as “our family” throughout this post) in the outskirts of the city, and then relaxing by the hotel pool(s) on our off days (and yes, it was me who was insisting on the relaxing part). As you can probably tell, I wasn’t keen on doing any of the said volunteer work in Cambodia. If anything, I was annoyed that I had to help people when I could be lazing by the pool sipping pina coladas. My parents would be so proud. Josh even said to me “you can stay at the hotel, and I’ll go” with complete sincerity. Pfft. As if my anxiety would let me deal with that guilt.

Josh and his business, Marques Flooring, put up all the money for the volunteer job.

The cost to build a house is approximately AU$2400 and every penny goes towards building said house for a pre-selected family. Families are selected based on certain criteria and all of that was done for us prior to our trip by a woman named Deb and her team at My Gap Year.

Deb founded My Gap Year many years ago. She’s a lawyer and also happens to be a friend of Josh’s family, which definitely helped with our whole experience coming together so fluidly. She decided to meet us in Cambodia to lend us a hand during our first volunteer experience. And thank God. That woman can cut through bullshit artists with a theoretical knife like no one else.

Day 1

Now, before meeting Deb, we experienced our first breakfast at Jaya House.

Yes, it is important that I mention this. It was fancy AF.

There was a buffet selection filled with breads, pastries, cereals, bowls of yoghurt, a large range of sweet treats and there was champagne and orange juice on ice for morning mimosas. At first, we panicked a little thinking we’d somehow booked a hotel that only served a gourmet continental spread. Can you imagine? We quickly learned that all hot food was a la carte and made fresh to order. You could order as much as you wanted, as many times as you wanted. Three eggs bennies? No problems. Another side of bacon? Sure, why not? It was better than loading up a plate full of food we probably wouldn’t finish, and it was steaming hot and fresh every time.

As we finished up breakfast, I noticed two women who had entered the hotel wearing bright orange shirts, and my stomach flipped. I knew it was Deb and her friend Kara arriving early to pick us up and take us to the village – and I was anxious. Like so anxious. Of course, they were both nothing but delightful as they greeted us, handing us matching orange shirts to wear and giving us the low-down of what we were going to do that day.

That bloody orange shirt. Not only was I anxious as all hell, I also had to wear a shirt that was not the least bit flattering for my figure or skin tone, and didn’t match anything I owned.

But, it was an important part of our time in Cambodia.

First of all, it was a safety thing.

We were travelling a fair way out of town and the orange shirts were a way to keep an eye on us, as well as let the villagers know that we were there as volunteers. The orange shirts were known amongst most of the people in the areas we were travelling and if they saw we were there assisting their country, they felt less threatened and wouldn’t wonder why we were near their homes.

Secondly, it was for our benefit. I noticed different treatment when that shirt was on and when it was off. Some days, locals working in the marketplace simply thought of us as tourists and tended to step up the harassment of purchasing their items. But when the shirt was on, we were mostly left alone and definitely didn’t run a risk of getting ripped off. As I mentioned before, Deb also played a big part in that. If anybody tried to pull the wool over our eyes she picked up on it immediately. If you have the chance to visit Cambodia with someone who used to live there – I highly recommend it.

We met our tuk-tuk driver and climbed in, ready for the journey to meet our family.

My anxiety was off the charts and Josh knew it. He held my hand and kept the conversation going with Deb and Kara while I said the occasional “oh cool”. I had so many thoughts racing through my mind and most of them were probably irrational. I didn’t like the unknown; it was hot; I was worried I was expected to build an actual house with my bare hands; I get nervous around big groups of people I don’t know, let alone who don’t speak the same language as me; I didn’t want the people we met to think I was a spoilt brat … and on that note, I kept thinking about when I was going to get to lie down with a cocktail and my book. Ha.

The journey to our village took us around 45 minutes to an hour, and that included a quick pitstop to pick up some supplies for our chef to cook lunch for the family and the builders.

Hollahhh! We had a chef (and damn he was GOOD).

I should quickly clarify here that Deb had hired the same people she hires for My Gap Year to drive us around, cook a meal for us and our family, and to generally help us out when we needed them. They were amazing and kind and appreciated the work they were getting from us while we were there.

Cambodian family and volunteers

Our family

The tuk-tuk journey was a rather dangerous one, in that massive trucks and buses flew past us and came centimetres from wiping us off the road. Deb told us that they’ve had to stop selecting families out in this area or will have to look at car hire if they do, as it’s too risky to keep taking people out via tuk-tuk. Regardless, we arrived at the village safely and were greeted by some locals who had been expecting us. Other people came out of their homes to see what we were doing and followed us as we were led down a trail away from the road, past a small body of water and to where our family resided.

Our family were timid, didn’t show much expression or say much, but were clearly grateful that we had come to help them. They were a young, newly married couple with a baby girl and the three of them were sleeping/cooking/living in what is known as a lean-to – it’s basically a few palm frongs leaning up against some branches. And that’s it.

Meanwhile Hannah from the five star resort down the road had real problems, like being anxious.

I didn’t know what to do, where to start, what to say. Deb and Kara had done this before and were so relaxed hanging out with people who couldn’t speak their language. I felt like people were looking at me thinking “spoilt princess, has never done a day’s work in her life” – which is probably true. In my defence I wasn’t opposed to helping out, I just didn’t (and still don’t) have any labour-intensive skills in my body.

Man digging

Josh working on the surface of the sun

Josh was of course enthusiastic AF and jumped straight in to help, picking up a shovel and digging holes on what was basically the surface of the sun. Not wanting to seem spoilt or unhelpful, I jumped in a puddle as directed by one of the site builders and stomped the mud down with my feet. I may not have known what I was doing, but at least I felt like I was doing something.

As I stomped my feet in the mud, Deb explained to me who was who in the community. “This person was the niece of that person who lived up the road and married this person …” They all seem to be interconnected somehow, or at the very least, had some sort of loyalty to each other. We learned that a lot of the builders on site were actually there volunteering, either because a) they had been fortunate enough to have a house built for them and were showing their gratitude or b) because they hoped by paying it forward, others would help when they were chosen to have a house built. A number of young children had also appeared to see what was happening – we were definitely the most exciting thing to happen in that village for a long time.

Not long after that, I gave up my place in the sun to shed bamboo in the shade like the diva that I am.

I was about ten minutes in, chatting to Kara about her life back home, when a young girl appeared by my side and motioned for me to come closer to her. I smiled and stopped shedding the bamboo out of fear of cutting my fingers off (I had a machete in my hand FFS). She reached out for the bamboo and I handed it to her, asking “is this what you want?”

As soon as the bamboo was out of my hand she, and about six other kids, swarmed me. I had to carefully put the machete down as they pulled my hand, shouting excitedly. I didn’t even have a chance to say no, or ask what we were doing – they pushed me with their tiny arms away from the main site, led me behind some trees to reveal a vast landscape filled with dry grass and one singular tree. It was actually somewhat breath-taking and I wish now that I had taken a photo. They led me towards the singular tree talking excitedly. They were clearly asking me questions and I kept saying “I don’t understand” and then they’d laugh at me. They picked berries for me and forced me to eat them. Legitimately, I was like “uhhhh is this poison?”as they pushed them against my lips. Yes, I took the chance and ate them anyway (sorry mum). Turns out they weren’t poisonous so hooray for good luck.

I didn’t know what any of them were saying, but I was smiling. I felt happiness come over me in a way that was completely unexpected. I think I was just happy because they seemed so happy. My guess was that they were discussing amongst themselves what we should do next, pulling me further away from the building site. Cautious Hannah’s brain kicked in at that point and I had to stop and suggest we go back to the main site, even though they couldn’t understand what I was saying. It didn’t matter anyway – a Cambodian man came out and yelled at the children and we all headed back in – turns out Cautious Hannah was right as he was warning us about snakes that were almost certainly out there. Awesome.

From that moment, those children did not leave my side.

They all wanted to hold my hand, to show me their games and how well they could draw. They all wanted me to pay attention to them, to show them games or songs I knew, to take an interest in what they were doing.

Never a dull moment

You may roll your eyes, but my day was filled with these cliche-movie-type moments. The kids wanted to play with me, they held onto my arms or hands and they giggled all the time. It seemed ridiculously made up.

I may have started the day off filled with anxiety, including when I couldn’t think of a bloody song to show those children, but by anxiety gradually dwindled and I eventually relaxed.  Those children didn’t care what I looked like, if I could sing or if I could shed bamboo – they just wanted to play. Joy radiated out of them, they sang and danced and squealed with delight at almost everything. Their smiles were infectious and they just wanted to show me everything all the time.

Cambodian kids drawing

Only when it was lunch time (which the adult villagers and our hired chef cooked) did they leave my side.  These villagers were very strong with their traditions and even though we insisted we all sit and eat together and share food, they all refused. Deb, Kara, Josh and myself were to sit on the tarp in the shade (with our shoes off) and to eat by ourselves, whilst the men sat together and ate, followed by the women and children.

The food was absolutely amazing and we had so much leftover that I instinctively offered it to the kids as they crept back to see if we’d finished. The older kids shook their heads immediately, but the younger ones, sheepishly accepted the offer. When we kept saying it was okay, eventually they all took something to eat – and thank god, because it was just going to end up in the bin otherwise.

At around three in the afternoon, we gathered our things together to head up the road to visit “Snake Man”.

His name had been mentioned multiple times that day, but because I had been playing with the kids for most of it, I hadn’t caught up on what was happening. Turns out, a man that Deb knew had been bitten by a cobra whilst out in the fields and she wanted to check on him to see how he was doing.

We left our village after assuring the children we would be back in a couple of days and headed ten minutes down the road to another small village. Josh and I hung back, trying to be respectful and not barge into someone’s home without permission, but Deb and Kara waved us in and said we could have a look if we weren’t squeamish.

cobra snake bite

No, that’s actually NOT special effects make up

Jesus H Christ.

When I saw the man’s foot, I wasn’t even repulsed. I was transfixed. I just stared at his foot, most likely with my mouth open in pure horror. I eventually tore my eyes away to look at his face and realised he was a young man, who was probably pretty fit and quick on his feet prior to the bite. He was the sole provider of his family and things were looking pretty dire.

No one in these parts of Cambodia can afford medical care. A day in hospital costs more than what most of them make in a year. It turned out that the local witchdoctor had made him a strong brew for the pain, however all it was really doing was getting him high and numbing the pain temporarily.

Enter lawyer-mode Deb. She was’t having a bar of it.

She demanded he come with us on one of our tuk-tuks and that we take him to a local hospital in the city. There was a lot of discussion around this. Sabet, our main guide, was translating for us and it turned out that Snake Man was particularly resistant to leaving. Josh and I waited outside and handed mini koala bear toys to some of the children there while the adults decided what to do.

Eventually, Deb emerged victorious.

Everyone listens to Deb. Everyone called her Barang, which in Khmer, means foreigner. And whilst we were all technically foreigners, she was the only one affectionately known as Barang. They knew her as the woman who was generous, but also stern. She helped out, but didn’t spoil. It became apparent quite quickly that she was respected by many in the area and thus, the reason Snake Man had agreed to go to hospital.

We set back into town, with Snake Man, his wife and child on the tuk-tuk behind us.

Pulling up at the hospital around 45 minutes was like the opening scene of a creepy, horror movie. I know that probably sounds dramatic and snobby, but trust me when I say that you need to behave yourself whilst visiting Siem Reap. And try not to get bitten by a snake either. This is not a place you want to end up for medical care.

The hospital was almost abandoned, it was cold, dark and damp. You had to take your shoes off when entering the hospital (which for a spoilt, first-world woman is concerning in itself) and we couldn’t find a staff member in sight. When we finally found someone to look at his wounds, Deb and Sabet went in with him to make sure the medical staff understood what was going on and what needed to be done.

We ended up walking across to a local restaurant and ordering everyone a drink while we waited for Deb and Sabet to come out of the hospital. Happy Cocktail, which I’ve mentioned in a previous post, is where happiness will always be found. Pina coladas, my favourite cocktail, are $1.50 at that place.

ONE DOLLAR AND FIFTY CENTS.

When I eventually sat down, I was overwhelmed.

I was overwhelmed with how much had happened that day. I was overwhelmed with what I had experienced, what I saw and who I met. My day was ending in a way that I did not expect – sipping the cheapest cocktail of my life, whilst waiting on the verdict of Snake Man’s foot and wondering what the children in the village were getting up to.

Deb and Sabet joined us at the restaurant to let us know Snake Man and his family would be staying the night in hospital and we all pulled together what cash we had to contribute towards his stay and so his family could buy food. It may cost a lot to them, but it was nothing to the rest of us.

Room service in robes

Getting room service and feeling unsure about it

When we got back to our hotel, it felt like we’d been gone for days. I was exhausted, but happy and positively oozing with gratitude. I was grateful for hot running water and soap, I was grateful for a soft robe and a soft bed, I was grateful for air-con and hot food.

I’m not going to act like we went home, turned into saints and decided to leave our resort to stay somewhere that had no electricity. No. I went to back to my hotel room and saw it in a whole new light.

Everything seemed out of whack after seeing how our new Cambodian friends lived. It didn’t make sense that we were getting room service delivered while our family were sitting in a lean-to with no electricity in the middle of nowhere. We kept talking about it the whole night. I even hesitated about posting the above photo – it’s like “hey we’re so grateful we’re going to rub it in everyone’s faces.” But I hope you can see I’m trying to make a point about the contrast.

We took that photo to remember how we felt in that very moment, and even now I can’t quite articulate what I was feeling. We went back home after a hectic day to the comfort of our hotel room and on-demand food. No matter what difficulties we may had been going through, it was nothing compared to those struggling out in the village we had visited that day. I felt shame for being a Westerner, but also empowered because I realised I had the ability to help those less fortunate than myself.

It was the start of a new way of thinking for me, and the days that followed only got more intense from there.

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