Life in a Cambodian Village

By Kirsty ThorpeI am a primary teacher born and bred on the beaches of Sydney and also a volunteer for Free To Shine. However, this year I am living in Cambodia. If you have never travelled to Cambodia you may have missed out on the most inspiring, memorable and enjoyable times of your life. I first visited Cambodia six years ago and ever since I have had a niggling feeling that I needed to go back. I could never describe why I felt this way but I automatically felt a deep connection to this country. After traveling the world I always said Cambodia was my favourite country and again I could never really articulate why, it was just a feeling. I finally returned for two months at the end of 2014 to volunteer as a teacher. I didn’t know where I was going to be sent or what I was going to be doing but this mystery ended up being the biggest blessing I have ever received. I was fortunate enough to be posted to a centre in a rural village 90km north of Phnom Penh which was surrounded by rice fields and traversed with red dirt roads. I got used to the whole families travelling on motorbikes, school children on bicycles and cows being the main traffic congestion and before I knew it, I was hooked. The 35 children that live in the centre are either orphans, children from abused backgrounds, children whose single parents are too poor to afford food and education or children that have been abandoned by their parents. So after my visit in 2014, I decided to take a GAP year from my teaching job in Sydney and return to this gorgeous village and the children that have found a secure place in my heart.

I have been here for 6 months now and have really developed a deep understanding of the Cambodian culture, the Cambodian spirit and seen first-hand the hopes for the future of this country. Village life here is simple. Every day as I walk down the street cows meander by, people planting rice stop and wave hello and motorbikes zoom by with a mountain of food or 6 people on the back. There is a drastic difference between the people and lifestyle of those living in the city and those in a village. I’ve had a non-existent experience in rural communities, so this really has been an amazing adventure for me. Everyone here, across all age groups were genuinely excited and honoured to have a foreigner visit their village. Unlike in the city, foreigners aren’t treated differently in the village or given high prices at the market.I was a novelty in this village at first as I’m the only foreigner here but now I feel like I’ve been accepted as a member of the community. This is a true testament of the nature of people here. They are accepting, welcoming and love showing off their lives. Whenever I walk into the village a barrage of children scream HELLO and run after me to high-5 me or to give me a hug, a new mum pushes her baby into my arms for a kiss and cuddle, the shop keepers offer me a free treat to taste and kids I’ve been teaching always offer me a ride on their bikes. I’ve been invited to have meals with families, go to meet other family members in other towns and I’ve been asked to share watermelons with teenagers. When I return to Sydney I’m really going to miss the smiles, the conversations with anyone and everyone and the friendly, open nature of the people here.I’ve come to learn, appreciate and absolutely love the people in this village and all over Cambodia. Older generations of Cambodians have lived through such horror and have experienced such unspeakable loss in their lives. However, they have a determination to survive, thrive and most importantly help future generations succeed. Their bodies and faces show signs of hardships but then they show you the most genuine (usually toothless) smile that shows their inner spirit. The older generation love a good chat, even though you don’t understand what they are saying, they always laugh and end up making you burst out laughing too. I’ve met such inspirational people and heard extraordinary stories of uneducated women, in particular, whose main priority in life are not their own hardships but their children and grandchildren. Older generations who remember life before the Khmer Rouge realise the power of the young generation to change the country. They do anything to ensure their children have every opportunity to succeed and have hope for the future. The children themselves realise that even though they live in a small rural village, they are the hope for Cambodia’s future and have a deep level of determination and motivation to succeed.

Cambodia may not be on the top of many people’s holiday wish list. It’s a developing country with an appalling history of war and turmoil, however, once you meet your first Cambodian you will realise what special people they are. We, as Australians, have the power to help these beautiful people. I think back on what used to frustrate me in Australia, my ‘first world problems’ (as my friends and I used to joke about); when my favourite sushi flavour was sold out, when I forget to set my HD recorded to tape my favourite show, when I buy a pair of shoes then the next week they are on sale…and then I compare these ‘first world problems’ to the concerns of people I’ve met here. Even though I don’t down play my frustrations but they do highlight how many resources we have in Australia to help developing countries. We have the ability to help Cambodia have a brighter future and the work Free To Shine does, is a prime example of this. Living here has made me more passionate to spread this message and I sincerely hope my insight into life in a Cambodian village has ignited a spark inside you too.For more musings of life in a Cambodian village please visit my blog