Camps International – Cambodia

After meeting our new team members from other school and our thirty plus hour journey from Devon to Cambodia we were all exhausted. We went out to a Khmer restaurant for our first taste of Cambodian cuisine which was a range of dishes involving chicken, beef and rice (over the course of eating rice 2/3 times a day for four weeks it got tiring). The next day we got on the coach to our first camp, Camp Beng Mealea. The camp is named after the community it helps sustain. On the first day we received a water blessing from a monk in the local pagoda before exploring the village. The camp had everything you’d need; huts on stilts to sleep in with mosquito nets, a communal area for eating and socialising cold showers and toilets (all be it, compost toilets). The camp staff were lovely and the children from the village would come up for their English lessons that we organised for them. We learned a bit of their language too! Our project work was a mix of walking down to the school and helping render their new classroom and build their path going into school. The kids didn’t hold back with the help, many of them would carry buckets of dirt to help with the road and stand outside their school helping to entice tour buses in to donate money. Nearer the camp we planted banana trees and went into the jungle to collect seeds to make seed balls to help reforestation. After project work we usually played a game of football or volleyball against the kids there and always got beaten.

After spending just over a week in Camp Beng Mealea we headed out for our trek. The trek consisted of 3 and a half days trekking through Phnom Kulen National Park and staying each night in a different place. The first day consisted entirely of uphill trekking with blistering 40 degree heat for 20 kilometres. It was intense work but when we arrived at the first camp in the evening it was such a relief. We stayed in hammocks under a monk’s pagoda and had to use a bucket to pour water over our head to wash ourselves which was our first experience without a proper shower. At sunset we all sat on the cliff top and watched the sun go down looking over a magnificent view of Cambodia joining the Thai, Laos and Vietnam borders which had a thunder storm over each country. It was truly breath taking and unforgettable.

The next day we were woken at 5am by monks chanting and banging on steel bells which set all the dogs barking. As sun rise was at 5:45am we all got up and ready and sat in the same spot as before to watch the sun rise which was even more spectacular than the sun set. After breakfast we received a blessing from a monk in the pagoda and set off on the second day of our trek. This day wasn’t as physically tiring as it was all flat however it was still sweltering heat and we were all stiff and aching from the walk the previous day so our tour guide cut off 3km from day two so we only walked 17km. We walked through villages which was such a different experience for us all. They all had dogs and cats and chickens running around with the children and some even had cows and pigs. After around six hours walking we finally arrived at our next camp which was a monk’s village in the middle of the jungle, it was so secluded it was a shock to get there. There were monks and nuns walking around grand gold and silver temples with Hindu and Buddhist paintings and statues. The toilets were pitch black cubicles with a water bath in and bucket to wash and a hole in the ground to go to the toilet. We stayed in little tents inside one of the prayer rooms with a monk at the back. That night we all sat on rocks and watched a thunder storm ahead. In the morning at 5am we were woken by monk’s banging on huge bells, cockerels, the loud prayer music, dogs barking and the monk’s radio behind us. There was absolutely no way we were getting any more sleep so we got up and ate breakfast. We set off on our third day of the trek and climbed to a bat cave where we all got our head torches and ventured in. I think most of us were surprised to shine our torches and find monks sleeping in beds and prayer stations set up in this pitch black cave along with all the bats flying around. We then left and trekked uphill to a ruined temple which had a surviving statue of an elephant and a tiger with flowers and incense the monks had left. We all appreciated this but were slightly frustrated to carry on with the trek and find ourselves doubling back to the camp and carry on in the other direction. However, a few hours later we arrived at the last camp which was tents set up next to the river which we all quickly jumped in and cooled off. That night we had a BBQ with kebabs and chips which were a massive change from chicken and rice and spaghetti bolognaise. However just as food was being served the heavens opened with torrential rain and lightning. The thunder was so loud you could feel the ground vibrate. We had to all huddle under a tarpaulin and eat our food in the pitch black. The rain lasted hours however when we woke in the morning it had all dried up and the sun had come out. We then started the last part of our trek. We arrived at the Reclining Buddha which was magnificent. We then made our way through the village to the waterfalls and went down lots and lots of metal steps to the bottom. We took a few pictures and didn’t want to leave the cool spray of the water but finally ascended back up which, after 3 days of trekking, is not kind for your legs! After a while of walking we arrived at our last part of the trek which was 800 plus steps to the bottom. We all counted the steps for the first 100 before people began losing count and only a determined few made it to the end. Our legs were all jelly by the end and no one could agree on how many steps there were, I think we counted 971! We gladly jumped on the air conditioned coach and drove to a restaurant where we enjoyed proper meals.

We then made our way to the hotel in Siem Reap. We all made ourselves at home and either slept or went in the pool and steam rooms, some even got massages in their rooms. It was a complete contrast to the trek. During our stay in Siem Reap we enjoyed shopping in the markets and venturing round the city. On the last night we went to see a circus which performs lots of different shows. It was amazing and all the acts were hugely talented.

After 3 nights in the hotel in Siem Reap we reluctantly left for our next camp, Camp Beng Pae. We arrived there in a cattle truck sat on wooden planks as the coach couldn’t get down there. This was like the first camp however it had proper porcelain toilets. We still used buckets to shower with but it we were used to it now so weren’t fussed. Our huts were the same as the previous camp’s but were more spacious which was perfect. Our project work consisted of filling in holes on a road for the community, painting the school, helping build a dam and planting trees. Same as the last camp, our days consisted of waking up at 6:30 for breakfast at 7, working 8-11 then coming back to camp, having showers and resting with lunch then back to work again 2-4:30/5. As we were so exhausted, bed was usually 9pm. After a few days in camp we went and got a water blessing from the monks down the road in their pagoda except instead of flicking water on us we all sat on steps and they threw large buckets of ice cold water over us and chanted until it looked like we had all fallen in a river. As they were doing it the monks were laughing which made us wonder if it was a 100% serious thing. The water was freezing and I think that was the first time I had been truly cold in 3 weeks. In the evenings and spare time we would all sit around and talk and play cards. After 8 or 9 nights in camp Beng Pae we packed our bags and left on the cattle truck again and headed off to Phnom Penh.

In Phnom Penh we visited the Russian market and bought presents for back home. The food section in the market was what I found most astounding, any meat or fish you’d ever want was there and any part of it too! The smell was unbearably strong so we didn’t have much time to look but we did see some very interesting things. The next day we visited the Killing Fields and the S21 Prison which was truly harrowing. It really gives you a sense of the brutality that occurred forty years ago to so many people. At the Killing Fields you could go round at your own pace with an audio set which told you all about the events that took place exactly where you were stood. You could even see pieces of clothing and bones of the dead coming through the ground where you walked. The S21 prison was virtually untouched and you could still see bloody handprints on a couple of the walls where people had been tortured. Walking round and viewing the displays of skulls and seeing photographs of faces of people and children who were genuinely tortured and killed where you were stood was one of the most profound experiences I’ve ever had. I don’t think anybody who went there will ever forget that experience.

The next day we went to visit the royal palace which was extremely hot and had a solid gold statue of the Buddha. That afternoon we packed our bags and left for the airport. We flew to Hong Kong airport and then to Heathrow where we said goodbye to all the friends we had made on our trip.

I found the trip to be hugely beneficial to me personally as it broadened my horizons to a different culture and way of life. I found it to be humbling to see how little some of the local people had and how they survived on a day to day basis. I would recommend that if anyone was to get the chance to go on a trip like this…they should take it.

Freya Novak