The Beginning of a Journey in Cambodia

The Beginning of a Journey in Cambodia
The following is an except from 'It's Not About Me', written by our CEO, Sally Hetherington OAM. 
You can purchase a paperback copy here.

IN 2009, I DECIDED I wanted to go on a holiday. As I was flipping the pages of holiday packages in a brochure I had picked up, a striking image caught my eye. ‘Cambodia, the Kingdom of Wonder’, the text read, above an image of a centuries-old temple.

That’s where I want to go, I decided.

It didn’t take any effort at all to convince my relatives to join me on a trip to Cambodia.

A few weeks before our departure, I decided to research into the history of Cambodia. Sitting down at my computer, I came across something I wasn’t expecting.

‘Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum – Visit a former Khmer Rouge prison’, the website snippet read.

Genocide? In Cambodia, the country I was about to visit? That couldn’t be right. I thought I was visiting a country with astonishing temples, not a country that had a history of genocide.

I clicked on the website link and was overcome with emotion seeing photos of shattered skulls, torture weapons covered in dried blood, and barbed wire fences. I was shocked, but I couldn’t look away. I spent hours that evening researching the history of Cambodia and was disturbed by what I read.

NOVEMBER CAME AROUND SOON enough, and it was time to head off on our adventure. I hadn’t forgotten what I had discovered about Cambodia, but as life went on, I put it to the back of my mind.

We arrived in Siem Reap on a hot and sticky day and checked into a small guesthouse. Located on a semi-quiet main road, it was walking distance to the local markets and not too far from the temples. We met up with our tour group and spent the next couple of weeks exploring Siem Reap, Kampong Cham, Sihanoukville and Phnom Penh. We ate spiders (crunchy on the outside, warm and liquidy on the inside), shopped up a storm at local markets, and tanned on the beach.

When we visited Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, we took a tour of the Tuol Sleng genocide museum, the former prison I had come across on Google many months ago. As we exited the bus and joined the lines of tourists waiting to get into the compound, I stared in disbelief at the circles of barbed wire that ran along the perimeter of the compound. The beauty of the palm trees was in stark contrast with the unimaginable horror that I knew lurked beyond those walls. As we walked through the building, our tour guide, a survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime that controlled over Cambodia for four years, told us harrowing stories of people who entered the building and were never seen again. There were rusted, iron beds, with shackles still attached. I imagined innocent Cambodians taking their last breath. We stared in disbelief at blood splattered on the ceilings from head wounds, still evident thirty years later. We listened intently as our tour guide described the torture methods used on up to 20,000 innocent citizens. We browsed rooms full of photos of men, women and children who were held captive in Tuol Sleng and met an untimely death. All but seven captives perished under the ruthless soldiers. Their crime was being educated. Being advocates for freedoms we take for granted. They were government officials, teachers, students, monks, academics, doctors and engineers. As time went on, the soldiers and leaders of the Khmer Rouge regime began turning on each other, and thousands of their own were tortured and executed.

As I walked through the grimy white building, I was overcome with a sense of fear I had never experienced before. I couldn’t comprehend how humans could do these unimaginable acts to one another. What did this say about humanity? They had held their captives for months at a time, utilising a torture system that was designed to make their prisoners ‘confess’ to crimes that they most likely hadn’t committed. They did this because they believed that Cambodia needed to start from ‘year zero’ and have a clean slate.

The aftermath was devastating. A country left with 25% less population, traumatised and numb. Still in shock, I began to wonder how this was part of our recent history. It only ended in 1979, seven years shy of when I was born. My thoughts then turned to wondering how a country could possibly overcome a genocide like this. How could they rebuild themselves and overcome the devastation and loss of such a mammoth proportion? As we went to our next destination, Choeung Ek, known widely as ‘The Killing Fields’, I continued to reflect on the resilience of the country. Here, we witnessed shallow mass graves of captives who had been tortured at Tuol Sleng prison. Bone fragments and teeth protruded from the ground, with remains of clothing draped over the makeshift enclosures. We learnt that babies had been executed by being swung against the ‘killing tree’. A large speaker hung from a tree and blasted music to drown out the cries and fears of those who were being executed. On some occasions, there were too many prisoners to execute in one evening, so they would wait in misery for the next night to come and their nightmare to be put to an end.

Witnessing the horrific history of Cambodia, I felt I had to do something to help the country with their recovery. I had learnt that poverty rates were high, tertiary enrolment rates were low, and crime out of desperation was common. Another Australian on our tour told me that she was interested in visiting an orphanage, so assuming this was an effective way to help vulnerable children, we decided to visit one in Siem Reap. Without booking an appointment, we tried our luck by having a tuk-tuk transport us a few kilometres out of town to visit an orphanage that he had suggested. We were welcomed by a Cambodian staff member where he showed us around the orphanage. Walking around, I quickly noticed that the rooms were bare, and our voices echoed among the walls. The staff member told us that the children were all studying either in classes at the orphanage, or at a public school. We came across a twenty-something-year-old Australian volunteer who told us he had been at the orphanage a couple of times over the past two years, and who was training the local social workers. I looked at him with envy, wishing that I could make a positive impact like he was. At the end of the tour, the tour guide sat us down and presented us with a donation form, asking us to make a gift to continue their work. I made a donation, hoping that this small gift could make a difference to local children. After, we headed back into town, where I couldn’t stop reflecting on what I had just seen and questioned myself on how I could help Cambodia recover from their war.  I couldn’t help but feel that there were countless children in Cambodia who weren’t living with much hope for the future. Despite not having a motherly urge in my body, I knew that I had to do something to help these children get an education and have a bright future to look towards. They (nor their parents), couldn’t help the card they had been dealt, and that’s what made me feel so passionate about helping. With Cambodia slowly healing, it was the perfect opportunity to help them move forward.

WHEN I RETURNED TO Australia, I was a girl on a mission. I felt compelled to help the children of Cambodia to access education, food and safe shelter, and assumed the best way to do this was through volunteering. I had seen photos on Facebook of other friends who had volunteered overseas, with the smiling faces of children, and decided that was the best way to help. I found a residential home for former street children located in Siem Reap, Cambodia. I completed my application and heard back a few weeks later that I was accepted into the volunteer program, where I would be teaching various subjects to disadvantaged children at the residential home in late 2010, and I was counting down the days until this became a reality.

Having never travelled alone, I was more than terrified of the journey that was awaiting me. How was a middle-class girl going to survive a month with no hot water, no proper medical care, and no McDonalds. Although I was eager to fulfil my dream of helping Cambodians, I couldn’t help but fear the unknown. The big day finally came and, with a large backpack, I was dropped off at the airport by my father, ready to embark on my first solo trip.

On the flight, I broke my cardinal rule by accepting candy from strangers but, other than that, things went smoothly. Arriving in Cambodia, I was met at the airport by a tuk-tuk driver who drove me to my hostel. That weekend I visited numerous Siem Reap attractions by myself, pushing to get out of my comfort zone. As time went by, I made several friends at the hostel and would spend my free time going on long bicycle rides, visiting the amazing sights Siem Reap had to offer, and drinking and dancing until the early hours of the morning. I realised that life had moved on since the horror of the Khmer Rouge, but the contrast between the bright lights of the clubs and the dilapidated bamboo houses a few hundred metres away still got to me.

I rode my bicycle to the organisation I was volunteering at on the first day. As I walked through the gates, I suddenly felt out of my depth. Watching the children running around the centre, calling out to their friends in a language I had no grasp of, I questioned my ability to stick it out for a month. As the day wore on, however, I felt valued. I knew what I was doing. 

During the month, I organised computer classes, helped the students read in the library, and ran workshops on topics such as the environment. Yet, I also spent half my time taking photos and videos of myself doing this good work instead of concentrating on helping the children. I told myself it was to promote the organisation. In hindsight, it was to promote myself. Yes, I admit, I was the Australian girl needing a new Facebook profile picture. This was a bucket list item, a rite of passage for us global citizens of the world. I gloated to people I met bar hopping that I was volunteering in Cambodia for a month because, in my eyes, I was contributing to the development of the country. I hung out with volunteers from the countless other organisations in Siem Reap, and we shared stories, glorified our achievements and patted ourselves on the back. Reflecting back on this time, I realised the real reason I was helping was to make myself feel good and look good; not to actually change the children’s lives for the better.

The time had arrived, and I was finishing up my last day in this volunteer placement. I bawled my eyes out. What if I hadn’t taken the perfect Facebook profile picture? What were those poor children going to do without my average teaching? My time had come and gone incredibly quickly, and I was to be replaced by another volunteer. I made my way to the airport, where I proceeded to cry for most of the journey back to Australia. I suddenly felt empty inside, and I knew I had to return.

ALTHOUGH I HAD ONLY been gone a month, my time in Cambodia changed me. I had a desire to do more and to be more. I wanted to offer my time to those living in poverty and make their lives happier and fulfilled. I wanted to ensure that children in Cambodia were able to access quality education, because that was the key to securing a good job. I knew that if I set my mind to it, I could really make a positive impact on the lives of children in Cambodia.

Almost immediately after returning, I started putting the wheels in motion for a return trip. This time though, I was planning to stay for at least a year. Having met many volunteers during my time in Cambodia, I knew there would be a need in organisations for volunteer coordinators. What better way to help Cambodians than by assisting the foreign volunteers who were there to teach them?

When researching potential organisations to approach, I came across two that caught my eye. One was a school for disadvantaged children, and the other was an orphanage. A few days after contacting the orphanage, I was met with a response saying they would love to welcome me. However, I was expected to pay a fee of several hundred dollars. The school also got back to me, saying they would be glad to welcome me given my experience, as their other volunteer coordinator had recently departed. I told them that I was also in talks with the orphanage when the school explained to me that the orphanage was purely a ‘money-making mission’. The children often slept outside with no shelter; they were made to dance for money each evening and were treated as tourist attractions. I reflected on what they said and wondered if there was truth to it. Was the orphanage indifferent to my motivation to make a difference? Did they simply just want money? But why? Wasn’t their mission to help Cambodian children be happy, healthy and safe? I didn’t know what to do, but thought it was safe to arrange a placement with the school. From that day, I began saving the money I would need to fund my trip for an entire 15 months and broke the news to my family and friends that I would be heading overseas for some time. 

A few months later, carrying a bulging backpack and mixed emotions, I left Sydney. Little did I know, I wouldn’t call Australia home for the next five years, three months, and five days.