Burnout and Heartbreak in Siem Reap
Travel burnout is a very real thing, and, after a month of nonstop travel, it hit me like a freakin’ wave.
Things had become rocky with the person I’d travelled with in Indonesia, and I can now attest to the many horror stories I’d heard about traveling with close friends – (10 out of 10 would not recommend).
I was exhausted...
Tired of airports. Tired of living out of a backpack. Tired of not knowing when I’d be able to do laundry. Tired of not being understood... And I’ll tell ya what, this exhaustion and burnout could not possibly have come at a worse time.
Cambodia was about to rock my world.
Before visiting the country, I saw a lot of your typical, travel blogger-esque photos. You know the ones I’m talking about… Pretty girls wearing pretty dresses, and probably a sunhat of sorts, strolling through temple ruins. Based on these and these alone, Cambodia looks picture perfect.
I still wonder where people go when the only thing they have to say about Cambodia is how beautiful and amazing it is. Sure, the temples are breathtaking... And, yes, the lights and competing Top 40 tunes blaring from Pub Street’s booze carts make for a fun night out… That is, if you get drunk enough to overlook the barefoot kids begging tourists for money late in to the night.
After having been there, I’ll say this… Yes, it is a beautiful, amazing country, as rich in history as it is in heartache. The poverty and hardships still faced by much of the population were indisputably visible… and, as someone who wears my heart on my sleeve at all times, I found it hard to come to grips with this gruesome reality after witnessing it first-hand.
Here’s a little history lesson for ya...
Between 1975 and 1979, the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, systematically killed an estimated two million Cambodians through execution, forced labor, and starvation. This (very recent) genocide resulted in the loss of a quarter of the population, including many of the country’s doctors, politicians, teachers, scientists, and anyone else who was viewed as a threat to the regime.
Families were separated, and, instead of going to school, children were put to work or trained to fight. The devastation that took place under Pol Pot in these four years has had lasting negative impacts on the Cambodian people, and millions of undetonated landmines and ordinance still litter the country today.
After reading up on the history of Cambodia, I knew it would be a tough country to visit...
...I had no idea just how tough it would be, or how much it would break my heart.
I knew I wanted to do something… anything… to give back while I was there, and, though it was only a small gesture, I opted to send my old teaching supplies to Siem Reap versus leaving them behind at my school in Seoul.
While researching reputable organizations, I read numerous articles about scams in Cambodia – Schools, orphanages, and even “non-profits” that, to put it simply, are not legit, and take advantage of tourists’ bleeding hearts. I made sure to find one that was legitimate… the Angkor Legacy Academy, located in the heart of Lolei Village, about half an hour outside of Siem Reap. After spending ₩150,000 on expedited shipping, and raising money to donate to the school’s community food program, it was finally time for me to make my way to Lolei myself.
Though I’d planned to volunteer at the academy and teach a morning English class, I woke up that particular day with a horrible stomach bug… and, if I’m being totally honest, an odd sense of anxiousness. Cambodia was doing a number on me, and I was beginning to question whether or not the school in Lolei was like the ones I’d read about. I decided to sleep it off and headed to the school that afternoon instead.
Later that day, after shaking off whatever funk I woke up in, I hopped in a tuk-tuk with my driver Buffalo and we headed to the school. As hordes of tourists went in their vans and carts toward Angkor Wat, Buffalo and I turned down the road and headed in the opposite direction. For half an hour, we drove through absolute nothingness… empty road and empty fields for miles. Finally, we took a left onto a narrow dusty street marked with a sign for Lolei. We tuk-tuk’d along a little bit longer before stopping in front of a big, open air classroom.
As soon as the cart came to a stop in the drive, a dozen kids immediately rushed towards us. Unlike many of the other children I’d encountered on the streets of Siem Reap, they weren't asking for money or trying to sell me souvenirs. They were all politely smiling, introducing themselves, and asking my name. Two young girls reached for my hand as I got out of the tuk-tuk, and led me into the classroom. Then they spotted the big box Buffalo was carrying from the cart and their eyes lit up. The kids all crowded around, likely curious as to what was inside.
After figuring out who the teacher was, (which took a while, as she looked no more than 18 herself), I asked if I could speak to the director, Sovannarith. We’d been communicating back and forth for a month or more, and I’d called him earlier that day to let him know when I was on the way. Oddly enough, he was nowhere in sight.
The teacher gave me a confused look, (which I figured just meant I’d butchered the hell out of Sovannarith’s name), and went to get the director. The shirtless, potbellied man who walked out of a back room was most definitely NOT Sovannarith. He exchanged words with Buffalo in Khmer… and then Buffalo turned to me and said, “This is the wrong school.”
Of all the things that broke my heart in Cambodia, this damn near ripped it right out of my chest.
I apologized profusely, explained the situation, and did the only thing I knew to do. I opened the box intended for the other school, and emptied it of half its contents. The sheer gratitude for simple things like new pencils, notebooks, whiteboards, hair clips, and stickers was heartwarming... and also heartbreaking, because I wished that I could do so much more.
I said goodbye to the children, and Buffalo and I headed down the road to the other school. In the smaller, more rundown classroom, the kids gleefully went through the remaining contents in the box. Though they didn’t know the difference, I felt horrible that I’d given away half of the supplies. While they drew on their new white boards and emptied the box, I emptied my wallet. I gave Sovannarith the $100 I’d raised for his community food program, (and the rest of the US and Cambodian money in my wallet).
Just when I thought Cambodia had finished mentally and emotionally rocking my world, I had a chat with a volunteer who was teaching at the school and staying with Sovannarith’s family in the village. I told him what happened, and found out about an "orphanage" in the area.
At said orphanage, the kids were known for rushing to any volunteers who showed up in the drive. They would greet them the same way they greeted me. I put quotations on the word orphanage, because, supposedly, at this orphanage the orphans are actually kids who are bused from their homes... and their parents... to pose daily as orphans.
Like I said before, I'd done research on these types of places, and made sure to find a reputable school. Yet, as luck would have it, a fake orphanage is, possibly, exactly where I ended up.
I still have not fully processed the range of emotions I felt during my visit to Cambodia. I was in awe at the Temples of Angkor. I was happy to reunite with friends I’d met in Vietnam on Pub Street. I was heartbroken every time I gave money to kids on the street, and every time I turned them down.
That day in Lolei, I felt helpless, stupid, sad, and even a little angry. At the same time, I thought, who the hell am I to judge?
Whether or not that open air classroom, of a potentially fake orphanage, was filled with orphans or children with families, at least it gave these kids a safe place to play and to learn. If that’s their only option, or their best option, then who am I to say whether it’s right or wrong? Since I’m not sure about the legitimacy of this place, I’m really glad Bleeding Heart Kirst hadn’t given the director any money. I’d just given things that, hopefully, have been used and enjoyed by those kids… and I would do it again.
Siem Reap broke my heart...
...and, all of a sudden, the global gallivanting I’d saved for and carefully planned for months began to feel really selfish.
I witnessed first-hand something I already knew, but that hadn’t quite yet hit home. The world isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, and travel isn’t as glamorous as Instagram makes it out to be.
If you’re anything like me, visiting Cambodia will be overwhelming.
Though you may feel hopeless and powerless, remember there’s always something that can be done to give back. I don’t know about you, but I’d take helping on a small scale over doing nothing any day… and, while in Siem Reap, I found a number of places and ways to do just that.
If you're planning a trip to the city, and are interested in finding out how and where to give back, stay tuned for part two of the recap.
For a better understanding of Cambodia and it's history, I highly recommend reading First They Killed My Father, a powerful memoir written by Loung Ung, a survivor of the Pol Pot regime.