First off, I’d like to wish everyone a Happy and Healthy 2014 and thank you SO MUCH for your views, comments, moral support and sales last year:) You made this girl very happy to be able to travel to Cambodia with The Giving Lens team and meet some pretty amazing people along the way.
So, upon my return home, massively jet-lagged and trying to wrap my head around the time difference, with a four-year-old who, frankly, does not give a damn – I typed up this lengthy blog entry regarding my experiences in Siem Reap with The Giving Lens and then somehow DELETED ALL OF IT WITHOUT PUBLISHING IT. Argh. A wee bit of swearing ensued, and I will neither confirm nor deny that I may have cried as well. For like, 2 minutes. Anyways. Lesson learned. Saving draft as we speak.
For those of you who don’t follow my Facebook page and perhaps didn’t see my regular postings as we made our way through Siem Reap and interacted with the wonderful youth and volunteers at Anjali House along the way; I returned in December from a volunteer stint in Siem Reap, Cambodia, with The Giving Lens team, to work with the children of Anjali House, along with several other NGO organizations in the area. It was a pretty amazing experience.
As a team of eight photographers, we were led by two team leaders, Naomi and Elia Locardi. Both are extremely experienced full-time travel photographers and it was an absolute pleasure to work with them. Please check out Blame The Monkey or The Giving Lens to see more info on the fantastic work they do.
The last time I traveled through Siem Reap was ten years ago, to the month. I was on a lengthy hiatus and was traveling solo throughout SE Asia. Cambodia was on my bucket list because I had done quite a bit of research, prior to my travels, on the Khmer Rouge Regime and it’s devastating aftermath on this beautiful, and seemingly peaceful country.
It ended up being a pretty rough go for me, as I arrived in Siem Reap shortly after hearing the news of a close friend’s unexpected passing via email. He had died suddenly on Christmas day, which, by odd coincidence, also happened to be the Birthday that the two of us shared together.
Although I had purchased a three day pass to the magnificent world heritage site, Angkor Wat, I bowed out after two days of temple exploration because my heart, and mind, were just not in it. I spent another week and a half or so in Siem Reap, mostly cycling around the city on a rented bike, or walking aimlessly through it’s endlessly crowded streets. I can’t say that I really absorbed Siem Reap for the wonderfully vibrant city that it is, at the time.
Next, I headed down South to Phnom Penh, where I could finally explore the Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng (the genocide museum), which is initially what I had come there to do. I know – good idea, right?
So THAT kind of did my head in. After that I headed to Sihanoukville, found myself a little bungalow on the beach, and I don’t think I left my hammock much for the next two weeks solid, which is probably what I needed at the time.
This country has an amazing history, despite, or perhaps because of, it’s horrifically violent past, and the grace of the people here is at jarring odds with the Khmer Rouge legacy. I felt I owed it to this country to go back and give it another chance. All my memories of my time spent there were grim, hard, and tinged with deep sorrow.
So you can imagine what a dream come true it was for me to be accepted onto The Giving Lens team to travel there on a volunteer basis! And to work with Anjali House; a non-profit organization providing free food, healthcare and education to underprivileged street kids and their families. The whole country is still reeling, and in recovery from, the bloody regime. The generation of children today are indirect, if not direct victims of the genocide. There are not a lot of families there who haven’t lost a family member or loved one to the Khmer Rouge, or been affected by the crippling poverty the country has suffered since.
Our purpose at Anjali House was to work with the kids there in a photographic capacity, giving basic workshops on operation of DSLRs (thanks to Andy Cotton of Cotton Carrier Camera Systems for donating DSLRs AND lenses for the kids to use! So generous!) as well as basic instruction in editing techniques in Lightroom, working on their tiny, donated Netbooks.
I cannot begin to tell you what a rewarding experience this was for all of us. These kids are bright, happy and so eager to learn. They’re just like any other kids the world over, but at the same time, they’re not. The poverty and backgrounds some of these kids come from is appalling, and hard to think of. But they meet each day with these amazing smiles, and they are all such gracious people. There’s that word again. But it’s the one word I would use to describe the Khmer people; gracious.
I was lucky enough to be paired up with 3 different girls for the duration of my time there (one of them, Chhuet, is pictured on the right, above), and I enjoyed every minute of the time spent with them. They had, up until now, been working on digital point and shoots, and had come out with some pretty amazing work. But for most of them, this was their first time getting their hands on a DSLR. Since there weren’t quite enough to go around, some of us handed our own over for them to go crazy with. I pretty much couldn’t get mine out of any of the girl’s hands for the entire time, not that I was trying. It was a pleasure to see them take to it so keenly – flipping through settings like mad, shooting a mile a minute, trying all sorts of crazy angles, and running over to demand I take a look at their work, or to ask “Why it not focus? Why so dark? Why won’t it take picture?” when they got stuck on a certain setting. There is nothing so satisfying as watching someone learn something that you both share a passion for. And these kids….they were just amazing….
I could go on about our team’s pre-dawn visits to Angkor Wat for some stunning sunrise shots, the beautifully playful, but not entirely friendly monkeys we encountered outside of the temples and took hundreds of shots of, the vibrant night market, with beautiful (and cheap!) Cambodian silk, the $3.00 massages (which include an ice-cold beer), the deliciously spicy Khmer food, about careening through the streets in tuk-tuks, and stopping for banana chocolate pancakes from the street vendors, about all of the small, delightful things that make this city what it is – but for me, meeting the kids, and watching them stand up in front of their schoolmates and tell us of their hopes and dreams for the future; “in future, I will be lawyer” or “in future, I will be flight-attendant”, and their absolute confidence in knowing that this would be so, was what brought redemption to me for my last trip there.
This is not a country that has given up in despair after decades of violence and poverty (and are still dealing with daily injuries and death from the land mines left behind during the Vietnam war). This is a country full of hope and promise, and a whole new generation of amazing kids that are more than capable of bringing about the change they hope to see. That is not to say that the country doesn’t have a long way to go. They need clean drinking water, education, accessible healthcare, the list goes on and on. So, if you’re looking for somewhere worthwhile to spend your time or money on this year, here are the links for some non-profit organizations we had personal experience with during our time there, who are all doing fantastic work alongside the Khmer people: