Making a difference: How a Griffith ENACTUS expedition to Cambodia inspired a passion for volunteering
Cambodia is a country of rough roads and stunning sunsets, yet its beautiful landscape lies in harsh comparison to its violent history. The 2018 Honours College Griffith ENACTUS Volunteer Abroad Project sent sixteen Griffith students to absorb and experience all aspects of the country’s contradictory nature.
Our journey began in Cambodia’s capital city, Phnom Penh. After a night spent in the cooling comfort of an air-conditioned hotel room, we travelled to two notorious sites of the Cambodian civil war: the Khmer Rouge Killing Fields and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, otherwise known as S21.
Our tour guide described the war and its horrific events – millions of Cambodians were murdered at the hands of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime in the mid to late 1970s. Any person who was thought to be an intellectual, or had any form of education, was executed in order to create a ‘classless’ society, where there were no rich or poor and only equals. This included all teachers, doctors and civil servants. Some were even executed if they spoke a foreign language or wore glasses. Seeing the skulls and bones of the victims and hearing the personal story of a survivor made it the most sobering day of our trip, yet also one of the most important.
Following our visit to S21, we were driven six hours northwest of Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, where we undertook two volunteer projects. The consequences of the past civil war seemed hardly fathomable when driving past children laughing in the street and witnessing the beautiful smiles of the locals.
Over the next week, the Griffith team volunteered on a building site in a small village on the outskirts of Siem Reap. Despite barely managing under the sweltering sun, our mornings were filled with laughter – bending every nail we were trying to hammer into the wood or dancing to pop music with a local grandmother. However most importantly, we knew that we were making a difference to the lives of a mother and her young son. From living in a damaged, straw hut to a strong, wooden house sitting on stilts, the family now has far improved living conditions. This means better security, sanitation and a child who is more likely to stay healthy and attend school. The construction of the house also meant job opportunities for the local villagers who worked alongside us. Our first volunteering project was concluded with a beautiful house blessing ceremony along with the homeowners, followed by a water blessing ceremony performed by a monk.
When the tools were down, our free time was spent cooling off in the pools of nearby hotels or planning our tourist activities. Our first Saturday in Siem Reap was spent exploring the many temples the area had to offer. To have the full experience, we visited one of the Seven Wonders of the World, Angkor Wat, at sunrise and sunset. And it did definitely not disappoint. From a light pink of the lily pads and their flowers in the lake below, to a dusty orange matching the monks’ robes, a sunrise behind Angkor Wat was breathtaking.
Before it got too hot, we walked the ins and out of Angkor, Bayon and Ta Prohm. We were amazed at the millions of intricate, handmade carvings found throughout the ancient structures. Despite being created centuries ago, they are nonetheless breathtaking for all people that visit.
Our final week in Cambodia was spent teaching and helping complete tasks at a local school. For many of the Griffith students, working with the children was the highlight of the entire trip. For at least a few hours a day, we assisted teachers with planning classroom activities, organising the school library and joining in with playground games. Seeing the incredible love and devotion shown by the teachers at the school was inspiring. Some work full days – 8am to 6pm – followed by a second job after teaching hours. The passion these teachers have for their students and ensuring they have a chance at a decent future was obvious.
A simple task such as brushing your teeth seems like such a basic skill to us, but some of the children didn’t know what toothpaste was and had never seen a toothbrush. Being able to teach these skills was very rewarding to us, and we left feeling like we had created a positive impact at the school, despite only being there for a week.
In the future, I now hope to volunteer for at least one month each year with an organisation that needs it most. I encourage you to also spend any time that you can give to volunteering; a week, month or three months in your local community. The influence a willing volunteer can have is huge and you can create a bigger difference than what you may think with a little time and effort.
Overall, our trip to Cambodia was a success. We completed two volunteer projects, and visited palaces and temples, waterfalls, floating villages, acrobatic circuses and enjoyed a quick lay-over in Hong Kong. Our sixteen days was jam-packed. I made new friendships, witnessed a country’s painful past but also its capacity to forgive, experienced the kindness and warmth of complete strangers, and finally saw the power of giving back to one’s community. I recommend the trip for all Honours College Enactus members, and highly encourage any Griffith students considering an international or volunteering experience to take a look at Griffith’s outbound programs and volunteering experiences available through the Student Guild.
By Natalie Durack