The Chronicles of JosHan: Siem Reap (Part III)

by smithstandard
lotus flower

Hollah! Thanks for coming back / visiting for the first time.

This post may not make any sense if this is the first time you’ve visited. If you find you’re confused you can read the prequels to help clarify a few things:

The day after meeting our family and Snake Man was our Angkor Wat day.

We had spent the morning frolicking amongst the famous Cambodian temples and had cut it short so we could lie by the pool and relax. And we had zero regrets about that decision. Sipping on beers and ordering bar snacks while hotel staff offered us free massages in our lounge chairs was definitely better than walking around in 100% humidity and getting chafe.

In the evening we met up with Deb and Kara for dinner in town (yes, where Josh ate the scorpion) and discussed our plans for the following day. We had intended on spending it by the pool again, however after everything that had happened the day before, we were eager to do more to help. IKR. Even I was surprised at my change in attitude.

We had a bit of money from the initial build left over and decided that we would put that money towards a well for the village where our family lived and the rest of it towards buying them supplies, as well as other items that might be considered more indulgent. By indulgent I mean buy the mother a second-hand handbag and get a mirror for their house. Fancy.

Day 3

Our plan for the day was to:

  • check-in on Snake Man;
  • venture to some local markets for our goods;
  • accompany Deb and Kara to their own families who they had built houses for on previous trips;
  • head back around two o’clock to get out of the heat and probably have an afternoon nap/beer(s)

Visiting Snake Man

When we visited Snake Man, we learned that his first night was spent on the hospital floor.

Yah. They didn’t have enough beds so he slept on the God damn floor with his wife and child. Imagine the outcry if that happened in Australia. Imagine the Facebook complaints. Ha.

Man with snake bite

Deb, Snake Man and Sabet

When we arrived however he had been upgraded to a “bed” – which was a wooden slat on a trolley. His foot was bandaged, he was sitting up and all looked well at first glance. However after Deb did some pushing and prodding we realised that the wound hadn’t been cleaned properly and that Snake Man wasn’t exactly feeling any better. It had appeared the hospital had taken the money and done a piss-poor job of looking after him, if I’m being completely honest.

Deb worked her magic to get the doctors to take another look at him and stressed to Sabet to translate that they needed to properly clean it all out. Like get right in there. The flesh on his foot was clearly dying and if they didn’t act fast, it was going to have to be amputated. It was pretty obvious to everyone it was headed that way. So we left Snake Man and his family with more cash (somehow every cent had already gone ¯_(ツ)_/¯) and said we’d be back to check on him later that day.

The markets

We then ventured onto our next stop, the markets, with our trusty driver Sabet at the wheel of the tuk-tuk. The markets we visited were mostly for locals (I mean, I’m pretty sure we were the only white people there) and with our bright orange shirts on, we were left to look through stalls and shops without much harassment.

Clothes and toys

All of the stuff

We bought a shitload of stuff for our family and for the children we had met the day before, including clothes, hats, shoes, school books, colour pencils (the children had begged for pencils), stickers, soccer balls, tennis balls, cutlery, pots and pans, rice … anything we thought they might want or need, we bought.

Before we left for Deb and Kara’s families, they advised us that we needed to purchase another item before leaving and this kicked us in the guts in a way we were not expecting.

*Trigger warning: the next part of this story contains references of sexual abuse. If this brings up anything for you, you can call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or visit their website.

We learned that we needed to buy a lock to fit on the inside of one of the houses we’d be visiting. Whilst the details were a little bit hazy, we learned that the mother of the family Deb had helped had allegedly run off with a man and left her two children behind. A little boy as well as her eleven-year-old daughter. It was suspected that the men living in the house just down a pathway from this young girl were getting drunk and then coming into the girl’s house at night.

Naturally when we heard this, we wanted to purchase a fucking shotgun to take with us. I wanted to burn their fucking house down. I still do. It was such a weird thing to experience, this flood of emotion that I’ve never felt before. This anger and sickening feeling that rose up from the pit of my belly and into my throat. My blood was boiling.

Josh was on a mission to find the biggest fucking lock in all of Cambodia and he and Sabet managed to find one that we all thought would do the trick.

The village

We were greeted at the new little village by Deb and Kara’s family, except the feeling was so different from our previous experience. We were apprehensive in a bad way and I wasn’t excited to get there, I was angry, and suddenly found myself pissed off at everyone else that lived near this girl. How come nobody was looking out for her? How come whispers of it had reached Deb’s ears down the grapevine, but no one had intervened until we arrived? I was fucking livid.

Meeting that young girl for the first time I will never forget. She was very timid, but was clearly happy to see Deb had come to visit her. She stayed well clear of Josh and Sabet however – understandably, she didn’t like to be around men. Deb started unloading a bag of new clothes and things she’d bought for her and began to cry silently. And then I cried silently. It was heartbreaking.

You better believe that heartache turned into fuel.

Josh and Sabet spent about half an hour in the 40 degree heat fixing the deadbolt to the inside of the girl’s home. I’m not sure if it’s customary in all of Cambodia, but in the villages we visited, young females and males were not to be left alone in rooms together, so Deb stayed by her side if she ever needed to go inside the house.

While the men were at work I was down with Kara and some of the kids watching on and I spilled my anger out to her. I just didn’t understand how this was all happening. Where had the mother gone? How could she leave her children vulnerable like that? Kara explained to me that some Cambodian people act in ways we first-world folk probably couldn’t understand. They make choices that sometimes only benefit themselves, even if they have children. Sometimes a daughter will be living next door to their mother and the mother won’t share their food, because that’s not how it works. Cambodians don’t interfere with each other’s business, there’s a class system and they certainly don’t tell Westerners what’s going on. No matter how many times Deb and Kara tried to get answers out of the villagers about what was happening, they always found a way to not answer directly. They did this a lot = ¯_(ツ)_/¯ with a sheepish smile.

After much persistence and sweating about 40 litres of water each, Josh and Sabet got the lock fixed to the door.

Josh then got Sabet to explain to the young girl how to work the lock, where to hide the key, and that Sabet would have a spare if she ever lost it (we had to keep that on the DL as well – it wouldn’t look good if a man, even a good one, had a spare). Sabet promised Deb he would regularly check in on her and it made us all feel a little better.

Fixing a water well

Fixing the well

As we gathered our things to leave I snuck a smile at the young girl and she let me hug her. I remember squeezing her and telling her that she was brave, even though she couldn’t understand me. Whilst she avoided Josh like the plague, at the very end he held out a little Koala for her to take and she gave him the smallest of smiles. That was the moment that broke Josh.

Just as we were heading to the tuk-tuk, Sabet pointed out that their well was broken and Josh, using his manly skills yet again, managed to fix it in about seven minutes so that fresh water could be pumped up again. Another small victory on what had turned into a hugely challenging day.

The journey back to the hotel was a somewhat sombre and reflective one. No one wanted to leave the girl there. Everyone wanted to adopt her and take her home. But we all know it doesn’t work like that.

Our last day

Our second last day in Siem Reap meant it was our last day out volunteering and visiting our families. We were greeted by all of the kids from our first day who eagerly unloaded our tuk-tuk and carried the heavy bags back to the main site. The house wasn’t going to be finished before we left, but we were pleased to see it was progressing as well as the installation of a water well (lots of photos at the bottom of this post). Cambodians tend to run on “Cambodian time”, so things can take as long or as little as they like.

Siem Reap house

Before (what the family had been living in)

Cambodian new house

After (the new house)

I had never seen anything like it when we handed out the supplies to the kids. They knelt down on the tarp in a neat line and waited patiently to receive their items, giving a slight bow after receiving each one. These children had nothing and yet were so patient and happy. They clung onto pencils and stickers until their knuckles were white and then later on in the day refused to use any of them because they were so precious to them.

Our day played out much like the first – the men built in the heat while us women hung in the shade with the kids. One moment in particular sticks in my head from that day – when all of the children started to sing to me. I had no idea what they were saying, but pure joy radiated out of them as they filled the building site with harmonious tunes. I remember feeling so at peace in that moment, like I was doing what I was supposed to be doing.

At lunch time we received a visit from another woman Deb knew from her time in Cambodia. She was blind, had two children and was pregnant with her third. And wait for it – her husband had left her and her mother had moved in and was feeding her rats. Yeah. Let that sink in. Naturally we let them spend lunch with us and everybody went into investigative mode to try and help her. Deb and her My Gap Year people are God damn warriors. I can’t give you anymore of an update on that one, but it’s another situation that I think about often.

The farewell

Everyday it had looked like rain, but the sky still hadn’t opened. We’d ask the hotel staff every day “will it rain today?” and they’d always answer with “not today” – andthey were right every time. On our last day with our family we asked the same question and every single one of them unanimously said rain was coming. In order to beat the storm home, we’d need to say our goodbyes sooner than planned.

Me crying like a loser when she hugged me and telling Josh I’m okay

The handing over of the house is a ritual / ceremony that is common practice and it was a beautiful moment for me. We laid out all the items we’d bought for our family and handed them over, including a nice hat, a handbag and shoes for the young mother. She was positively beaming with her new things. Josh spoke on behalf of us both, thanking everybody for making our experience so wonderful. Anyone that saw his posts at the time knows the moment got the better of him and he cried. I remember thinking “eyeroll, pull it together mate”.

At that moment, the young girl who I had bonded with the most, who I’d developed a soft spot for, wrapped her arms around my waist. And then I bawled like a giant peanut. There was Josh and I, standing in a group of people who we’d spent less than two days and who didn’t speak our language, bawling like absolute losers.

It was so hard to walk away from that house. The trail back to the main road felt like it took forever to walk, and yet the end of it crept up so quickly. I didn’t want to get to the end of the path. Because once we got to the end, the kids would have to let me go, we’d have to say goodbye and I’d be seeing them for possibly the last time. I gave my final squeeze to my fave little girl with the attitude of an absolute boss and climbed into our tuk-tuk, trying my best not to look back. But I did – I couldn’t help it. I waved once last time and just allowed myself to be vulnerable. It was the most incredible experience I have ever had.

One last pit-stop

Before we got on the main road, we stopped by two families just around the corner who were possible candidates to receive a house through My Gap Year’s work. My eyelashes were still soaking wet from blubbering, but I managed to pull my shit together for one last stop.

The living conditions of this family were ridiculous. These people were basically living in a cubby house with a tarp over the top. The wooden area underneath the tarp was their dining room, living room, kitchen and communal bedroom. What was so hard to take in, was the two-storey mansion that was positioned right next door. The imbalance in wealth was staggering and once again, things didn’t make sense.

Neighbours

We didn’t end up beating the storm home. We were halfway down the main highway when the heavens finally opened and we had to pull over so we didn’t get run off the road by trucks that couldn’t see us. It was the first time we’d laughed since leaving and as cheesy as it sounds, it was somewhat symbolic. Our work was done for now, I’d been crying and released so much emotion and the sky had finally decided to open and give everyone some much needed rain. I know I sound like a bit of a hippie, but reliving that experience makes me get all the feels again. Ya’ll need to go and do it.

The wrap-up

We spent our last night in the most grateful of moods, wandering around town and enjoying the hustle of the nightlife. We were pleased to learn that Snake Man was finally getting proper treatment, and thank God. He was about a day away from losing his foot and probably dying if Deb hadn’t hustled him to a hospital.

While we talked about how awesome our trip had been, Deb smiled and told us to hold onto the buzz for as long as we could, because there was  no denying the inevitable. Eventually we would go home to Australia and the high would wear off; we’d eventually become “westernised” again and things like getting your nails done and paying bills would become our priorities. And she was right.

Once we got home, we slipped back into our old ways. We tried our best to stay in the headspace we had been in in Cambodia but it was only natural our habits would change again.

Cambodia stole a piece of me.

I don’t think I’ve ever felt those sort of emotions in my life before. It was surreal and humbling and beautiful and sad. As a privileged white woman, I felt conflicted all the time. I started to resent being a Westerner with my Western lifestyle. With my five star hotel and my iPhone and worrying about my hair and getting spray tans. It was a constant struggle, but one I was glad to have gone through.

I have never experienced such kindness from a culture of people before and there’s no denying that my volunteer experience is something that flicked a switch in my brain, even if it doesn’t stay on as much as I’d like now that I’m home.

While I know a lot of my blogs and Instagram stories are filled me ranting, raving and whinging, our time in Cambodia set the mood for the rest of our trip. The only times Josh and I got worked up on the remainder of our holiday was when we had to deal with stupid people in airports. And even then, we would just look at each other and not allow ourselves to lose our shit too much. We learned to laugh at the stupid people and we took notes so I could write a rant-filled piece like this one (and many others). Even when we were stuck on the runway for ages, we just read our books and sat quietly, while the people around us tutted under their breath. Nothing was really a problem after that. We were humbled to the core and I cannot wait to go back and feel all those feels once again.

Uh yes, that’s correct. WE ARE GOING BACKKKK YOU KNOW!

In less than a month Josh and myself will be travelling back to Siem Reap to help build another two houses for a village. And by build, I mean, I will hopefully get to chill with kids while Josh does most of the work. Deb is meeting us over there again (hollah!) and hopefully, we will get to meet up with all the My Gap Year folk we met last time, as well as visit the families we helped last year. That’s a moment I cannot wait for.

The best experience ever

As mentioned previously, the funds for building these houses come from donations. If you would like to donate, PLEASE CLICK HERE and I promise that every cent will go towards the build, the materials, items for the families, a well … whatever they need, and any money that is leftover will be saved for the next trip, to help the next family. This is something we want to do on a regular basis. So you’re going hear me harping on about this for a longgggggg time.

If you’ve made it until the end of this post – you’re a legend. If you have any questions about visiting/volunteering, don’t hesitate to comment, message or email me at smithstandardblog@gmail.com. Scroll down for all of the photos.

Han x

ALL OF THE PHOTOS

The inside of the new house

A brand new water well

All of the sass

Poor house Cambodia

Just standing in someone’s whole house. NBD.

Our welcome party on our last day

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