Cambodia, the “Kingdom of Wonder,” has an abundance of culture and tradition. Ridgewood’s Cambodia Club recently visited this spectacular country to aid the Ridgewood Village School and other programs such as Caring for Cambodia and Bright Futures Kids by volunteering their time and offering donations. I was fortunate to attend the trip with the group from Ridgewood.
During the first four days of the trip, the group stayed in Siem Reap where we were able to visit the Caring for Cambodia School and the orphanage at the Landmine Museum. At the Caring for Cambodia school, we encountered many excited students, however, we were only allowed to interact with them for a short time as our initial mission was to paint chairs and tables for the new computer lab. The painting process might have been tedious, but providing the school with well-painted chairs and tables was a worthy task.
The next day, we visited the Landmine Museum where we paid a visit to the orphanage and offered our donations. The museum was founded in 1997 by a former child soldier, Aki Ra, who decided to help uncover landmines after the war. The orphanage was originally created to help landmine victims, but now the orphanage takes in children from different villages to educate them and provide relief. There were barely any children outside the orphanage, but one child, around three years old, inspected the gifts we brought. I was moved by him, and it brought me joy to know that these items that we often take for granted, such as combs or toothbrushes, will serve a purpose for the children.
Apart from visiting schools and exploring museums, our group toured the famous temples in Siem Reap: the Bayon, Ta Prohm, Banteay Srei, and Angkor Wat. Angkor Wat is the greatest temple complex in Cambodia and the largest religious monument in the world. Throughout the temple, there is Khmer artwork and architecture, the most prevalent being the Buddha statues. Angkor Wat is a representation of Cambodia’s long lasting, ancient history of the global stage. Although the temple is not in ideal condition, the beauty and magnitude of the temple will never be forgotten or diminish in impact.
We spent the last four days of the trip in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. In comparison to Siem Reap, Phnom Penh is more modern and commercialized. On the streets, the motorcycles and cars replaced the more traditional tuk tuks. Similar to most modern cities, the buildings are constructed with new technology and the use of electricity is more widespread than in rural areas.
We were able to see another side of Phnom Penh with our visit to the Royal Palace where King Norodom Sihamoni lives. The palace grounds are extensive and the buildings are covered in a shimmering gold that shines brightly under the Cambodian sun. The Royal Palace’s gardens and throne room were evidently influenced by the French style of the late 1800s.
Among the darker pages of Cambodian history textbooks one can read about Tuol Sleng, the school where the Khmer Rouge captured and tortured their prisoners, during the Cambodian Genocide in the late 1970s. Walking through the halls and into the classrooms that later became interrogation rooms, cells, and torture rooms, I could imagine the pained screams that filled these spaces. We learned about a specific method of torture that included hanging the prisoner upside down. Then, the Khmer Rouge would beat the prisoner senseless and dunk the prisoner’s head in dirty water until the prisoner awakened so the torture process could commence once more. Afterward, we visited the Killing Fields, a morbid place where the prisoners were brought to be murdered en mass, and where over a million people died during the Cambodian Genocide. It was a sobering, but important experience, as the negative parts of a country’s history also contribute to its culture and atmosphere today.
Following the solemn day of learning about the era of the Khmer Rouge, we visited the Ridgewood Village School. We engaged with the students in different activities: everything from practicing English, learning origami, and playing Bingo, to learning the fundamentals of STEM. When we met the primary school students, they were just as energetic. Although the children at the primary school can barely speak English, they were eager to learn and were making incredible progress. We played various games with the children and entertained them with balloons, sock puppets, and jump ropes. Our group had a great time and the donations given to the school will undoubtedly assist the students, not only with their education, but also in their enthusiasm to continue attending school.
Our final visit was to the Bright Futures Kids program. This program is similar to a boarding school as it allows outstanding students from different schools across Cambodia to come together and further their education through the advanced classes that the program provides.The students’ English is at an intermediate level and they were able to comprehend and speak to us with ease.
Throughout the trip, our group was able to create friendships with the students and even learn a bit of Khmer along the way. We were also able to learn about the time during the rule of the Khmer Rouge and the scars the years of the Cambodian Genocide left behind. Although Cambodia went through dark times, the progress made after the war is evident in the growing markets and construction occurring in the cities. The trip to Cambodia was an amazing opportunity for us a group of RHS students as we obtained a deeper understanding of Cambodia’s history and also supported the schools with our time and resources. It is undoubtedly an experience I encourage all RHS students to take advantage of in the future.
Graphics: Anika Tsapatsarsis