Two flights and 21 hours later, I landed in Cambodia for a trip that is part vacation, part medical mission. Twenty one hours is a long way to go, but the distance in miles dwarfs the vastly different culture i find myself in. Cambodia is a world away in every possible way.
Despite its recent history of civil war and it’s pervasive poverty, this predominantly Buddhist culture is a benevolent haven. I am struck by the seeming lack of crime and the generous spirit of the Cambodian people who seem genuinely grateful that westerners visit their country, bringing dollars and opportunity to a land that was nearly destroyed by the Khemer Rouge.
Getting to this side of the world can be expensive but once you are here it is incredibly cheap. Two dollars gets you a ride in a tuk tuk, motorized carriages that act as taxis, to any part of the city. An entire meal of fresh, clean food will run you about $5, a beer $2 and a bottle of water, $1. Then there is the $3 piranha pedicure, as I like to call it, where you soak your feet in a bath of baby piranhas that then eat the dead skin off your feet in a million tiny little bites. And yes, I tried it. It was freaky but it worked. And while it is unlikely I will ever do it again, I am glad I tried it once.
One of the more surprising things to me is the food! Everything is so fresh and clean. It is a healthy eater’s haven! Fresh coconut water right from the coconut, sweet exotic fruit, fragrant broths with rice noodles, lean meats and loads of vegetables….. and that is just breakfast! At every meal there is an opportunity to eat well and substantially but never too much. I am getting a lesson here on the true meaning of portion sizes. Everything is tiny and what is astounding is that it is enough. We are all eating what is about 1/3 of what we eat at home and yet we walk away from every meal feeling full and satisfied, and which lasts the whole day. Additionally, I have been having just two meals a day because that too seems like enough and I have yet to feel hungry. Maybe its the heat, but a fresh coconut water at night feels like just the right thing before bed to take the edge off.
On our first day we visited Angkor Wat at sunrise, the largest religious monument in the world and the world’s largest Hindu Temple. Built by King Suryavarman II in the early 12th Century and dedicated to Vishnu, Angkor Wat served as state temple and the Kings eventual mausoleum. It is vast and well preserved and has come to symbolize Cambodia. Angkor Thom, built in the late 12th Century by King Jayavarman VII and means literally, “Great City” is a vast monument to Buddha, whose image is on every tower and wall carving. Both temples are breath taking and humbling and a meditative experience for all who enter.
But for all the exotic adventure, the highlight of the trip is the opportunity to bring information and resources to the people of the remote villages outside Siem Reap.
The organization I am traveling with, Cambodian Child Dream Organization, builds wells, vegetable gardens, tippy taps and latrines in the outskirts of Siem Reap through donations received the world over. A well can mean the difference between life and death in a community that would otherwise get their drinking water from stagnant lakes, loaded with bacteria. Now with clean water to drink and to use for cooking these communities are seeing an improvement in overall health, hygeine and survival rates. Additionally, they are able to water the vegetable gardens that are flourishing due to the money collected through donations. A single vegetable garden can feed several families for months.
Medical care is a primary focus of the CCDO and through their efforts clinics have been set up in the remote villages, staffed with local medics. It is fairly rudimentary but offers the basics such as screening for infections, managing coughs, and obstetrics. One village woman had just given birth when we arrived and we had the privelege of visiting with her for a moment, although I doubt she appreciated us hovering over her after she so recently labored. Antibiotics are available and distributed if needed as are vitamins for the children.
I am traveling with three nurses, plus a 15 year old girl, Amarica and her mom. Our mission is to bring our medical know-how to the women of the villages and offer any medical advice we can. On our first day the nurses did a demonstration on how to perform self-breast examinations which had the village women giggling like school girls. They had never heard of such a thing but soon were open to learning about this potentially life saving practice. My contribution was to find out the most pressing medical need that they encountered in the villages and then put together an iPad picture show of how best to prevent or manage these conditions with the natural resources available to them. For example, respiratory infections are quite common so I showed them how they can boil ginger, lemongrass and lemon juice in water, all of which are readily available even in the most remote villages, to help boost immune function. You do these things and you hope they help, but the truth is, the translator didn’t have a great command of the English language so you wonder how much got across. Still, a lot of good gets done.
Through the efforts of CCDO, kids are now getting warm meals at school and learning how to speak English which will allow them far greater opportunities in the future. Classrooms are well maintained and joyful places, with colorful banners and decorations hanging low across the ceilings. The kids seem happy and are eager to learn. School is taken very seriously and the children seem well behaved. An education here is not taken for granted, as, like I mentioned, they are aware of the difference their education will make to their future. On the day we visited, Amarica, who traveled from California with her guitar, taught them how to sing “Let It Be” which they absolutely loved. She is also donating her guitar to the school so any of the kids who want to learn have an instrument to practice with.
About 20 minutes outside of Siem Reap, we visited a local orphanage that was once funded by the CCDO, but is now funded by a Taiwanese man for about $600/month. They have about 80 orphans, only 10 of which are true orphans, meaning they have lost their parents. The rest are economic orphans, sent here by their families because there is no money at home to care for them. It was not a sad experience at all, contrary to what I expected. These kids are taught well, especially useful skills like how to speak English, and have better opportunities available to them in regards to a future because of what they learn at the orphanage. It is a rather happy place, if that is even possible to imagine of an orphanage, where they spend their days learning, and making crafts…. Silks they weave on looms, ceramic plates and bowls and leather pictures of deities, elephants and banyan trees that are hand carved by the children and dyed with dyes made of boiled tree bark that gives the leathers a deep purple, almost brown color. When you buy one of the crafts (which I did), you meet the child who made it and who receives 20% of the profits, the balance going to the orphanage. This is actually more lucrative than you would imagine. The leather I bought of a banyan tree was $30, which is considerably more than anything else I have encountered here.
From what I have been told, adopting these orphans is not a possibility as the Cambodian government prohibits foreign adoptions (unless, of course, you are Angelina Jolie) for fear the children will be sold into slavery. This is another example of the benevolence of this place despite its recent violent history and enormous economic need. They are simply not greedy and seemingly, not corrupt. Theft is kind of unheard of. My roommate has left her computer out, I have left my jewelry around and it is all there when we return at the end of the day. Motor bikes whiz by tourists walking on the street and you never hear of any of them grabbing bags that they whisk away in the night…. it just doesn’t happen. I chalk this up to the fact that the country is 90% Buddhist. Whatever the reason I find it kind of unbelievable.
One of the more striking things about this experience is that despite their lack of money and resources, these people seem truly happy. With so much need and suffering, there is an openness and joy to their faces. They seem immune to the limitations of their lives. It reminds me of a story my mother-in-law used to tell about her life in Sicily. They were poor but they didn’t know they were poor because they had so much love in their lives… I think the same may be true of the Cambodian people.
Onto Vietnam soon and the adventure continues…..
Till next week…