Back to School

It has been a whirlwind introduction to Cambodia during our first two days in Phnom Penh. Whilst yesterday weighed heavy on everyone, it also stirred a lot of thoughts and feelings among the group for this intriguing country, having glimpsed both light and dark, the smiles and the wounds, in our short time here so far.

Excitement carries us to a 6am breakfast start in Battambang this morning, as today we get to visit our first school. It’s a treat to start the day sipping tetley tea (funny how quickly you miss the small things) on the roof terrace of our hotel whilst watching the sunrise.

We tuk-tuk to Sdeileu Primary School where SeeBeyondBorders has been working for 3 years, marvelling again at the (lack of) road rules on the way. Today we’re helping to demonstrate to the teachers how to run sports programmes, which have now become compulsory weekly sessions in Cambodia but of which the teachers often have little experience, being more used to the structure of the classroom.

Everyone is first explained the purpose of the activity – improving attendance, basic motor skills, and generally making school more stimulating and fun for the children. They certainly made the morning fun for us, as we joined teachers and other parents and volunteers from the community in running through basic games and sports circuit activities as if we were the kids. Cue plenty of laughter (and sweat in the case of us unacclimatised foreigners) as stuck-in-the-mud and simple ball games magically transcend the language barriers between us and the local people.

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The best part for most of us was yet to come as the schoolchildren came out, and we got to help the teachers implement the circuit and games for real. Jon attracts some fans immediately, as does fair-skinned Ro with a little girl who won’t let go of her arm. Meanwhile Fiona and Liz look ready to take a few home with them already as they join in the playground games.

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The session closes with short speeches of thanks from each group present (including Jon who we nominate to speak on our behalf) highlighting the importance of having each of them working together towards a common goal – the teachers, the parents, SBB staff and even the officer from the District Office of Education. This is all too important in a place where education is not the obvious choice for a child in the first place, let alone how it is implemented. When we share our reflections on the day later in the evening it seems everyone had a moment of feeling a connection with someone, though the scale of the improvements needed still leaves others feeling conflicted.

Everyone is starving by the time we get to a local noodle place for a late lunch, after which half the group go kayaking. They’re asked whether they need life jackets before being sent on their way and told they’ll be picked up 6 bridges downriver. I’m told that when the first bridge took an hour to appear they had almost given up hope, but with singing to keep the spirits up and some zigzagging rowing skills they made it, though had to escape some pirates in the shape of local kids who tried to mob the boats.

The rest of us visit Wat Sampeau, with Ed and Kate’s son Jonno as our guide, who has been in Battambang for 5 months. It’s a long trek up to astounding views from the top of the hill, passing beautiful greenery but also killing caves on the way up that remind us of the Khmer Rouge’s shadow. On the way down we pass a stream of hundreds of thousands of bats forming a snakelike ribbon across the sky, in a bizarre phenomenon that sees them fly out of the same cave at the same time every day.

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It sounded like both groups got a good workout and ended up quite wet (one with river water and the other with sweat). Even just a 1-minute shower on our return is bliss. We regroup on the roof terrace to get an introduction to the Bavel project, which is where money from the Aberdeen Charitable Foundation is being put to work. SBB have been working here for a much shorter length of time than the school we saw today, and we’ll be helping improve the facilities from tomorrow.

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For now though a few choice quotes from the day…

‘That’s what’s really making this trip for me so far… the people, and then the food’ – Sophie, after a very tasty lunch at a local place that makes its own noodles

‘The path will definitely lead somewhere…’ – Jonno, after we agree to try the route on Phnom Sampeau he’s 80% sure is right (it wasn’t)

‘We can’t fix everything’ – both Ankia and Susan at separate times, but when talking about how much still needs to be done.

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