Tag Archives: Cambodia

Travel Guide: Battambang x2

Two years ago, I spent a week in Battambang, Cambodia’s second-largest city, as part of my school’s field studies program. That week completely changed the way I see education, my role as an educator, and what is possible with and for students. Last week, I had the opportunity to return to Battambang with about sixty grade 10 students for the same program, a week that has left me again convinced that young people can do anything as long as we support them.

On this trip, I acted as the school trip leader and worked closely with the program lead from the JUMP! Foundation, the organization that really puts together the whole experience. I can’t say enough good things about the work they do for students and communities and I am so proud to partner with them.

As trip leader, I wasn’t attached to a particular group of students and instead filled in for staff as needed, managed all student issues from discipline to illness to homesickness, switched groups daily to get to know each student, and met nightly with school staff and JUMP!’s lead to hear feedback about the day. Prior to the trip, I arranged airplane travel and rooming assignment, worked with teachers on curriculum coordination, communicated with parents, and managed petty cash. And, despite mental fatigue that hasn’t quite worn off, I really enjoyed it!

Welcome to Battambang, the arts and culture center of the Kingdom of Cambodia!


We flew into Siem Reap and immediately drove the three hours to Battambang where we spent the rest of the week. One of my friends immediately pointed out how much greener Cambodia is in November than it was in February on our last trip. It was really nice to be back in a city I had come to know a couple years before and see how it had changed.

On our first full day, I went with a group taking a tuk tuk ride to Phnom Sampov. Many of the students had never been on a tuk tuk, which is a really lovely way to see and engage with the countryside. The ride itself is beautiful and provides insight into how people live in a country still recovering from decades of civil war.

Phnom Sampov is a mountain dotted with Buddhist temples. We paused in front of several, but the goal of our time there was to visit a killing cave, one of the many legacies of the Khmer Rouge. Each group was partnered with a local facilitator for the week, in addition to teachers and a JUMP! facilitator, which gave the students a cultural connection to Cambodia that they would not have had otherwise. That was a change from the first trip and made a great impact on the students’ understanding of where they were and why.

That afternoon we visited Buddhist University and two monks led us on a tour of the campus temple and then guided us through a short meditation. From there we visited teh university library, which, in addition to the novel sight of monks on laptops, had a specific section for writings by peacemakers. That made me very happy!

As our last activity of the day, we met the dancers of Cambodian Living Arts, one of the many organizations working to revive the arts and culture that were destroyed during the Khmer Rouge era. They performed for us and then taught us a traditional dance involving coconuts, leaving everyone laughing and in high spirits. This was an uplifting change from the somber feel of the morning.

We caught a gorgeous sunset on our way to dinner, still travelling by tuk tuk. The sun rises and sets very early in Cambodia, something I always forget, but that also means that the stars are out when it’s still early enough to enjoy them.

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The next day I joined a group at FEDA, an educational organization we used to work with that had just stopped its operation. Now, the visionary leader behind FEDA is working to build a peace museum on FEDA’s campus to chronicle Cambodia’s history and ongoing reconciliation work. That afternoon, we visited Banteay Srei, an NGO working for women’s empowerment in a country where there is a clear status difference between men and women from childhood onward.

It rained the following day, which was delightful because it cooled everything down and left the air quite pleasant. It’s always amazing to me how great of an impact weather has on the way we experience pretty much anything.

Another group started their morning with COMPED, an NGO that focuses on waste management and composting. The students learn about what COMPED does before going to the market to pick up organic waste. They then deposit it at COMPED’s dump sight. I missed it this year but remember the lesson very vividly: Everything goes somewhere and nothing disappears; we leave traces of ourselves wherever we are and that impacts people the world over.

Laster that day, I joined a group heading to Cambodian Children’s Trust. This is the organization that had the greatest personal impact on me from our last trip. CCT opened my eyes to the realities and dangers of orphanage tourism and the astonishing statistic that 80% of children in residential facilities worldwide have living parents. CCT works to support families by providing holistic care and services to the children they work with and their family members.

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I went to bed laughing after spending the afternoon with a particularly entertaining group of young people. There’s a certain ease and genuineness that comes from eating together, learning together, and playing games together outside in sweaty clothes. It’s my favorite way to interact with students because everything I want for them, everything that leads to real questions, connections, and ideas, comes naturally.

The next morning we visited the Phare Ponleu Selpak, a non-profit providing children with academic education as well as arts education, specifically centered on circus skills, as a way of providing them with future work opportunities. I’d seen Phare’s show in Siem Reap on this trip two years ago, but this time we were able to participate in an amazingly fun circus skills workshop! We learned tumbling and how to juggle, took a tour of the campus, and got to watch some of the students rehearsing. We saw Phare’s Battambang show on the last night of the trip and were excited to see the same students perform.

That afternoon, in keeping with the arts theme, we visited Lotus Gallery to meet a local artist and make some art. The gallery itself was beautiful and had a very calming influence on the students.

I spent most of the afternoon chatting with the artist about the creative process and how she gets inspiration from her love of nature and purposely surrounds herself with plants and flowers, even building a garden sidecar for her motorcycle!

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I also enjoyed chatting with her husband about his work in drugs education through theatre. He told me that the drug of choice in Cambodia is methamphetamine, which likely comes into the country from Thailand. It was a real joy to meet a couple who have invested their lives in work that they are passionate about and can also make a positive impact on others.

I spent our last full day on a cycling tour with Soksabike, which had been a highlight for me the first time around. We stopped periodically to learn about local livelihoods and the local families that Soksabike supports. We visited a family making rice paper . . .

. . . Cambodian scarves, which are called krama . . .

. . . banana chips . . .

. . . and bamboo sticky rice, which is a popular street snack. . . .

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The bridge that we would normally take to cross the river had been dismantled, so we crossed by ferry instead. Needless to say, I loved this part. Water and I get along really well.

After the cycle tour, we continued that day’s local living theme by visiting the market, which was just such a joy. The students had a scavenger hunt to help them interact with locals and my job was to follow a group and make sure they didn’t get into any trouble. We saw food stalls . . .

. . . the usual array of meat, fish, and produce (my favorite!)  . . .

. . . textiles, toys, and dry goods . . .

. . . cosmetics and toiletries (and hairdressers and nail salons!) . . .

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. . . and a surprising number of jewelry counters! (Hint: This is where we found the most English speakers.)

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I love markets. They are always my favorite part (or pretty close) of any place I visit. I love seeing people come together for the same needs the world over. I love watching people interact and engage in the common pursuits of humanity. I love watching life happen in its most natural ways.

After Phare’s circus performance to round out the program, it was time for an early night before a 3am wakeup so that we could make the three-hour drive to the airport in time for our 10:30 flight. Absolutely worth it.

JUMP!, I can’t thank you enough. I watched students learn, grow as individuals, become closer to each other, create new friendships, engage with new ideas, and experience a culture and a place that is very different from what they usually see in Singapore. Thank you for bringing out the best in our young people. Thank you for all that you do.

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Travel Guide: Siem Reap

This trip was a bucket list item for me. I wasn’t able to visit Siem Reap and the Angkor temples while I was in Malaysia and there was no way I was leaving Singapore without having that experience. I’d been hoping to visit the temples while in Cambodia in February with the grade 10 students (my post about that trip is here) but that didn’t happen. So, armed with what I’d learned about Cambodian history and culture, a water bottle, and a camera, and accompanied by my friend Rachel, I visited Siem Reap and the Angkor temples over our long weekend for Good Friday. If you’re unfamiliar, take a look at this useful page from UNESCO.

It was amazing.

I cannot emphasize that enough. As we experienced in Battambang with the kids, the Cambodian people are friendly and welcoming and excited to share their culture with foreigners. Our hotel organized a tuk tuk driver who collected us from the airport, gave us a brief historical overview of Cambodia, and then drove us around the temples the following day. Kina was able to answer all of the questions that we had and constantly made sure that we were happy and comfortable. The food in Siem Reap was delicious and cheap and very vegetarian friendly – we even ate at a vegetarian restaurant our first night in town! It is so much fun to  be able to order literally anything off a menu! (Is this how other people feel all the time?!)

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Adorable street with shops and restaurants

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Siem Reap has similar markets to elsewhere in Southeast Asia and we did a fair amount of browsing, as well as some solid purchasing. There are a number of social enterprises and NGOs around Siem Reap (I’ll reference my Battambang post again), which meant that I bought a bracelet, wristlet, dress, and a few birthday gifts in order to show my support. Yes, that is my story and yes, I am sticking to it.

But onto the important part and the entire purpose of this trip: Temples.

Everyone I talked to and every guidebook says it is worth it to visit Angkor Wat, the largest and best known of the temples, at sunrise. That meant waking up at 5, meeting Kina at 5:30, purchasing our temple pass, and eating breakfast while waiting for sun to come up. Unfortunately, the haze is slowly returning and we did not see the stunning sunrises that appear in every advertisement for Angkor Wat. But it was beautiful all the same.

I would still recommend visiting the temples at sunrise because it was rather cool and pleasant out and there were relatively few people. As the day went on, it got much hotter and much more crowded. Kina told us to spend three hours at Angkor Wat and we did. We left just as everyone else was arriving (at the very late hour of 9:30am).

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Tuk tuk parking on our way out of Angkor Wat

Kina did not walk around Angkor Wat with us, and Rachel and I agreed that it was easier that way. We’d done some pre-reading in her guidebook the night before and I’ve taught about the Khmer Empire in the past so we were happy to simply explore and enjoy the architecture. We climbed up many flights of stairs, modern but not up to Western safety standards, and were able to look down on our surroundings. I could not stop taking pictures! It’s taken me three nights of editing and curating to even get to the point of writing this post.

The painted stone, carvings and motifs, and sheer size and scale of Angkor Wat all took me by surprise. I was utterly delighted with the beauty of the stone, with its solidity and sense of permanence; I must have said “Wow” a hundred times. The intricacy and detail that went into the design of the temples clearly indicates the care, hopefully love, and presumably desire for power that are all part of Angkor Wat. Spending time among Khmer history, culture, tradition, and temples still standing after 1,000 years made me wonder about what we build and create today. Will our structures be standing in 1,000 years? Will our writings, digital as they often are, remain for future generations?

Again, I did not understand the scope and scale of the temples at all. They are massive and stretch over 400km, which I didn’t realize until we arrived.

After our three hours at Angkor Wat, we met up with Kina and he took us on a short drive to Angkor Thom.

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These soldiers guard the way to Angkor Thom
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I really loved the enterprising lady selling fruit shakes as we waited in line. Yes, her cart is a tuk tuk.
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Tuk tuk traffic on the way to Angkor Thom

Kina gave us two hours to wander through the Angkor Thom complex. We encountered even more and steeper stairs than we had previously and the weather was a lot sunnier and a lot hotter. There were also a lot more people. The most amazing part about Angkor Thom for me was the well-known Bayon temple, also known colloquially as “the faces temple.” I loved that each carved face was different. It actually felt like there were eyes looking down on us as we gazed up at them. It was sobering, in a sense, to be surrounded by people and feel pierced by stone eyes that are 1,000 years old. The sheer size of the faces was once again a surprise.

And, of course, the colors and symbols were beautiful:

The other temples at Angkor Thom are less famous than Bayon, but similarly beautiful. Lots of climbing here, too!

Our walk through Ankgor Thom to find Kina gave us a little taste of what we would see later at Ta Prohm.

Our third and final temple was Ta Prohm, better known as the Tomb Raider Temple. As in the movie. With Angelina Jolie. We ended up had dinner at a restaurant called the Red Piano, which Ms. Jolie apparently frequents when in town. Naturally, we each sampled a Tomb Raider cocktail. Rachel lucked out and got a free one (presented to her with the loud ringing of a bell) because every tenth Tomb Raider at the Red Piano is free!

But I digress.

It was hot by the time we made it to Ta Prohm and we were tired. We discussed heading back to the hotel to cool off and relax (remember that we’d been up since 5am) but neither of us felt like we’d be excited about returning to the temples the next morning so we decided to just go for it. This would be the biggest advantage of a three-day pass, I think. Plan on getting up early, going to temples for a few hours, and getting to bed early that night. Temple fatigue would likely not come on as strongly that way.

Ta Prohm was really different from Angkor Wat or Angkor Thom because of the trees. It’s quite overgrown and really does have a very creepy atmosphere as a result. We walked through Ta Prohm much more quickly than the previous temples but did enjoy the massive trees growing up and over the stone.

We actually made it back to the tuk tuk before Kina who had not suggested any sort of time guidelines for Ta Prohm (he was spot on with the other two). I expect we were there for roughly an hour. Kina tried to talk us into seeing more temples that afternoon but we were rather done by that point. Sitting in air-conditioning for a while and getting something to eat were tempting propositions.

We succumbed to temptation and it felt great.

Here are my general recommendations if you’re planning a trip:

  • Before you go . . .
    • Buy extra bottled water at a mini-mart that you can keep in the tuk tuk (they sell water and refreshments at the temples but it’s expensive and less convenient)
    • Buy some nuts and dried fruit at the same mini-mart
    • Hire a tuk tuk driver
  • When you’re there . . .
    • Do the sunrise thing
    • Cover your knees and shoulders (everything I wore was tech and that worked well for me; Rachel had a coverup top for her tank top, which she said got sweaty)
    • Rachel would recommend a hat (I don’t do hats ’cause they make me look like I’m 16 but she was glad she had it)
    • Be prepared to climb (so you’ll need appropriate shoes – I had Tevas and Rachel had Toms and we were very happy with those decisions)

There are a few entry pass options for visiting the temples. We bought the one-day pass for $20. You can buy a pass after 4pm for the following day if you’re so inclined. We knew we would only be there for a maximum of two days so there was no financial incentive for us to buy the three-day pass, which is $40. As I mentioned above, if you think a few hours over a few mornings will work for you, buy the three-day pass. It is substantially cooler in the mornings (as in, I was a bit chilly in my t-shirt and leggings when we left the hotel and couldn’t even remember what chilly meant by the time we got back) and a lot less crowded. I believe there’s also a seven-day pass available.

I normally don’t mind traveling alone, but I was particularly glad to have Rachel with me for this adventure. She’s a wonderful photographer and it was fun to follow her around to see how and what she photographed. I also really enjoyed sharing this experience with someone else. As much as I do enjoy solitude and personal reflection every so often (see the post about my trip to Ubud), I think my time in Siem Reap and visiting the Angkor temples was so delightful because I was able to point out what I thought was cool, hear what someone else thought was cool, and just exclaim aloud. It gets a little weird doing that alone. Rachel and I laughed and talked all weekend long, which is exactly how I hoped to spend my three days away. I came back to Singapore feeling happy and rejuvenated, which is precisely the point of a holiday.

Travel Guide: Battambang

This week-long adventure was different from any I have ever experienced. This was my first time in Cambodia and my first traveling internationally with students. I visited Battambang with the entire grade 10 class of my school (about 90 students) along with the seven other teachers. Upon arrival, we joined JUMP!, a very wonderful experiential education social enterprise with which school is currently working to plan the annual field studies trips for all secondary school students. I am in awe of what JUMP! planned and how their plans came to fruition.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The focus of the grade 10 week in Battambang, Cambodia’s second largest city, was to get students thinking about community development, both as communities of advisories (groups of about 15 students that meet daily) and global communities. We spent the week learning from and working with different social enterprises that aim to make Cambodia a better place. All the restaurants where we ate were social enterprises, as well. As part of the program, we explored privilege, voluntourism, sustainable development, Cambodia’s history, and how to bring about positive social change. Throughout the week, I saw my students’ hearts and minds open up, not only to these ideas but also to each other as individuals and as friends. I can say without a doubt that every student returned to Singapore wiser, humbled, empowered, and with new friends.

This post will chronicle my week in Battambang as best as I can based on the photos that I can share. Most of my photos for the week were of and with students, and there are a variety of reasons (i.e. privacy, confidentiality, just plain propriety) why I won’t share them in an unprotected online space. Heartfelt thanks both to JUMP! for their incredible work and to John, the extraordinary JUMP! facilitator assigned to my advisory for the week.

To get oriented, here is a very helpful map from Lonely Planet:

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We flew into Siem Reap on Saturday and drove the 3+ hours to Battambang the next morning

One of our first activities was a tuk tuk ride to visit Phnom Sampow. We took a difficult climb up a steep hill, pausing along the  way to see Buddhist temples and learn about Cambodian agriculture from our guide. We could see farms for miles from various lookout points.

The temples were exquisite, as well. I have a few Buddhist students who stopped to pray along the way.

We also encountered a number of monkeys and actually had to alter our route at one point to get away from them. Monkeys are vicious and will grab any food item or even backpack in site. My favorite monkey was this one:

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The highlight of this trip, though not photographed because I felt weird about that, was the killing caves, a site of Khmer Rouge slaughter. The caves contained a memorial to victims, including skulls of those who died there and a Buddha statue for those who wished to pay respects.

Probably my favorite morning of the trip started with a trip to a local market to pick up ingredients for the Cambodian lunch we would learn to prepare! The market was wonderful (and sold more than vegetables, though my photos might have you believe otherwise) and the cooking school was incredibly accommodating to my vegetarian needs. Even better: We received cookbooks to take home!

Another really transformative experience was our visit to COMPED, a social enterprise that collects organic material, turns it into compost, sells it to farmers for fertilizer, and uses the money to run enrichment programs for children. To learn about what they do, we visited a market, collected rotten produce, and shoveled it onto the compost pile at a local dump. While there, we also learned that the families who live on the dump are paid more than they would be in other jobs. Despite health risks from being around burning trash, they choose this life to feed their children.

Another social enterprise, Coconut Water Foundation, also runs after school and summer enrichment programs for students. We joined them at a school for about an hour one morning to play games with some of the students. Rather than sharing pictures of children, here are a few artsy shots:

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Our last full day found my group on a bike ride with Soksabike, a social enterprise that pays families to produce traditional products, therefore putting money into the economy, and brings tourists to see these products. Soksabike’s tour guides are local university students who are working to enhance their English skills as they do their jobs.

Among other things, we learned how rice paper is made . . .

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. . . and sampled some delicious dried and fried bananas.

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The final stop on the tour was a very moving memorial to another killing fields site across the street from a Buddhist temple that the Khmer Rouge turned into a prison and interrogation facility. I didn’t have the heart to take pictures of the memorial, mostly because it broke my heart. The 1970s weren’t that long ago, and the Khmer Rouge existed in Battambang until 1991. 25 years ago is not very many years. The detachment with which Cambodians speak about the Khmer Rouge genocide is painful to witness.

I don’t have photos to share, but other social enterprises that we visited and worked with were Phare, FEDA, and Cambodian Children’s Trust. All of these organizations work with and for community development, specifically targeted at children. CCT was the most moving for me because they taught us about orphanages and orphanage tourism. We learned that 80% of children in Cambodian orphanages have living family and are in orphanages (and often exploited and abused as a result) because their families were tricked into thinking their children would have better lives and a better chance at education.

It was a week of growth, that’s for sure. I’ll be back in Cambodia in March to spend a weekend in Siem Reap to visit Angkor Wat. I’m so grateful for the opportunity to travel with my students to Battambang to learn how real Cambodians live. The trip we took and experiences we had would not have been possible for me to orchestrate. JUMP!, thank you for opening my eyes to this beautiful country and its proud, hopeful citizens.

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At the old abandoned airport one night