Exploring the Authentic Cambodian Countryside

by Julie Cleaver

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I swung gently gazing at the pockets of blue hidden behind the canopy of mango trees above. Despite the shade the humidity made sweat accumulate underneath my shirt and on my forehead. The motion of the hammock was relaxing. Earnestly I listened to the unfamiliar Khmer language being spoken. The words bounced up and down and intertwined with friendly laughter, the only sound I could understand. In the distance I could hear the gentle purr of monks chanting. Their voices were mournful as they ceremonially hummed for the dead, wishing them a safe journey to the next life. I sipped my freshly chopped coconut through a straw as I lay back and absorbed my surroundings. This is Cambodia, a majestic, unique and awe-inspiring planet far away from any earth I had ever known.

I journeyed from Ho Chi Minh, the bustling capital city of Vietnam, to the Cambodian equivalent Phnom Phen. Both destinations were over crowded with markets and structures of all shapes and sizes. An unimaginable amount of scooter traffic haphazardly maneuvered and squawked around the city in chaos, like a gigantic flock of aggressive birds. The cities were dusty, cheap and fascinating, however they only offered one side of the heavily contrasted Southeast Asia. I came to see authenticity, not just a big city.

After a few days of exploring the sites and haggling tuk tuks I ventured away from the buildings, tourists and smog of Phnom Phen and took a bus to the pristine countryside of the Kandal Providence. Farming villages, endless green rice fields and an unimaginable amount of Pagodas (Buddhist temples) swept past my window. As I ventured deeper into the unfamiliar countryside a sense of excitement accompanied with an undercurrent feeling of fear came over me. I knew I was travelling into a world totally foreign to my own.

As I reached my destination The Jasmine Orphanage fifteen gorgeous little girls and three barking dogs greeted me. They all ran up to me in an excited cluster of giggles and barking. The orphanage director and his beautiful wife then came and officially welcomed me to their home. One girl came up and held my hand, a tiny gesture of love which overwhelmed me in that moment. We walked around the orphanage together, my fingers clutching hers as tightly as hers were mine. It seems we both needed each other for some reason.

The orphanage was a beautiful place. It was dusty and filled with an endless mob of mosquitos, but stunning nevertheless. Upon arrival I was told that I would be teaching English to the girls four times a day. Two hours of teaching in the early morning and two hours in the evening. This left me with an insane amount of free hours to explore the unfamiliar Cambodian countryside.

Teaching English was difficult to say the least. The girls knew a lot less than I originally thought and I basically had to start from “Hi how are you”. With only a white board and no Khmer (the Cambodian language) skills it was a challenge to communicate what I was trying to teach, however my epic acting skills made things a bit easier. Despite the problems I faced the girls were all eager to learn and repeated my words in booming voices that would have left an old person cringing.

The first time I left the orphanage gates and wandered around the countryside the extent of my unfamiliar appearance dawned on me. In the city locals were more accustomed to seeing tourists however out these ways a little white blonde girl might as well have been a green extraterrestrial creature. Everywhere I went eyes fixated on me. People would sometimes just stop what they were doing and just stare at me in confusion. It was exciting to stand out and due to the randomness of my presence every adventure I had was somehow more interesting.

Most days I would leave the orphanage and visit the Pagoda next door. The site was absolutely phenomenal. Large elaborately designed temples sat in amongst a field of Buddhist statues, ponds and gardens. I always sat on top of one small temple cross-legged and just watch the monks perform their daily tasks. There’s something awe-inspiring about monks and I don’t think it’s not just because of their beautiful orange robes, perfectly baldheads, or peaceful demeanor, it’s more. To me monks possess something indefinably spectacular and silently observing them do ordinary tasks, like washing their robes or pulling out weeds, was a true delight. Also, when the monks were hidden away in their temples meditating I would sit outside and meditate simultaneously with them. The amount of good karma I soaked up from doing that will hopefully enhance the quality of my next life…

I would frequently get lost wandering around the rice fields which surrounded the area. The leaves of the plants were so inexplicably green that it felt like someone had photoshopped them, upping the contrast and vibrancy to 100%. Sometimes deep in the fields I would run into a farmer tending to his crops. His shock to see me was painted boldly across his face. I would always smile, a universally recognized symbol of peace. The deeper I ventured into those fields the further away from myself I felt. I had no concept of time or even space, I was just there in an endless moment, reflecting on life and all it is to everyone.

At any given time you are on earth you are no further or closer to this planet, yet hidden away in the Cambodian countryside I felt solar systems away from any earth I had ever known. We all design our own understanding of this world based on what we see and hear and being in such a foreign environment, observing and assimilating to the Cambodian lifestyle, I was able to recreate my viewpoints about what life is and what it can be. Now I see this existence as an endless amount of opportunities. At any given time if you are unhappy in your situation you are simply a plane ticket away from a totally new world. You will never be able to escape yourself but you can escape your fabricated perceptions and limited view of things.

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