I am sitting in my hotel room at the end of our first full day in Cambodia and I felt I had to write this post about ‘those moments’ that make you love life, that take your breath away, that break your heart and that make you feel like you are exactly where you are supposed to be, because those are the moments I experienced today.
The morning was spent at Wat Damnak, where we listened to monks talk about the work they do to help Cambodians in poverty, followed by a language class where we learnt some simple phrases to help get us through the next 2 weeks. It was an enriching experience and a great way to start our trip, we were humbled by the generosity of this place that only charges $6 per term for students with money and the students without attend for free. These monks are so friendly, happy and giving, they really reinforce that you don’t have to have things to be fulfilled and that it is easy to just love the wonderful life that we’ve been given.
The next chapter to our day contains the ‘heart breaking moment.’
We visited the Siem Reap war Museum and met our tour guide. He started the tour by telling us about his life, he’s 48, my parents’ age, he grew up through warfare, first the war with Vietnam and then during the Khmer Rouge reign. He lost his whole family in the killing fields when he was a small boy, he managed to escape and lived on his own for several years surviving off bee hives, fish and whatever else he could find to eat and stay alive, he was then recruited into the army when he was 13 where he spent most of his time in hospital. He’s been shot 3 times, injured my a hand grenade and a land mine… he lost his right leg and eye sight to the land mine. He has since recovered 70% of sight to one of his eyes thanks to a United Nations funded operation that sent him to Bangkok for the surgery and wears a prosthetic leg. He has shrapnel scattered throughout his body which we were able to feel and see through his skin. When asked why it was still in there, he simply replied that he can’t afford to get it removed.
This guy is 48, has survived all of that and now spends his days showing and telling people about the war – what a remarkable story. I couldn’t speak, I didn’t have any words to offer to provide comfort or at least acknowledgement and comprehension of what this man has been through in his life, how could I? I have grown up in the ‘lucky country’ I have never known violence, corruption or poverty. At the end of the tour he was thanking countries like Australia and Canada for helping to create a land mine free Cambodia and he looked at me as we finished and said he likes Australia a lot, although he has never been, and I said yes I am very lucky to live there, he answered with ‘yes, we have very different lives.’ And again I was struck dumb by the meaning of those words and all I could do was nod and agree. I found this man so inspiring, his story is so incredibly heart breaking and yet here he is, grateful to be alive, grateful for the prosthetic leg that enables him to walk, grateful for the operation that has restored some of his eye sight and grateful for the efforts that are going towards rebuilding Cambodia.
I will never forget that man for as long as I live.
On a more uplifting note, do you want to know what took my breath away today – the darn cuteness of these little Cambodian children, I honestly might get locked up for trying to smuggle one home.
Driving through the city on tuk tuk’s you get to see a lot of people, many of them drive past extremely close, most of them are on motorbikes and some these motorbikes have little children on them clinging to their parents. I absolutely love when they see you, notice you are a ‘Barang’ (this means white ghost, what the Cambodians call Westerners) and they give you a huge smile and a wave – it’s not just the kids, quite often adults will call out to say hello ‘Sua sudai!’ and offer a huge smile. I think this is the best gift Cambodian can give, their warmth and generosity just makes my day, like it did today. After being at the museum and hearing about so much death and violence, it was refreshing to drive through the city and be shown such kindness.
We ate dinner tonight at the Green Star, it is a restaurant run by an Australian man named Doug and his Cambodian wife. His restaurant is associated with the Green Gecko project and they take children off the streets and gives them paid work in hospitality so they can learn skills to get a job and support themselves. Another amazing project and more amazing people doing amazing things. Sitting around the table listening to Doug’s stories, with all of these amazing students and eating the absolutely amazing food for no more the $3 per dish, made me realise that in that moment, I was exactly where I wanted to be. I was feeling full and a little tired but mostly I just felt so so lucky to be there, to be sitting in that little restaurant that makes such a difference to so many kids, experiencing new things (I ate frogs tonight everyone!!) and just revelling in the fact that I still have 13 days of ‘these moments’ to come. Bring it on.
To find out more about the Green Gecko project and/or make a donation, visit http://www.greengeckoproject.org