My trip to Cambodia was one of the greatest and most interesting experiences that I have ever had. I had the opportunity to live among the locals on an island that had never had tourists, where I was immersed in Khmer cultural practices and even learned how to speak a few phrases.
The days consisted of diving in the Gulf of Thailand, in 30 degree salt waters that were much warmer than those in my home country of Canada. Diving afforded me the experience of seeing choral reefs for the first time, as well as all of the picturesque underwater wildlife and ecosystems that I'd only ever before seen on TV. This experience alone was one of the best I had ever had while travelling.
Another daily activity we engaged in was teaching English at the village school, where we got to meet the local children. Eager to play games like tag to supplement their learning, the kids were incredibly friendly and taught us how to count in Khmer.
The projects that we were working on while I was there included constructing an incinerator to create a more sustainable waste management system, and building a playground for the local school. As a person with a background in working construction, I found it very interesting to see a different perspective on how the projects were completed than back home. The locals were very supportive of the initiatives and often included us in the specialized work that they were completing.
The landscape and scenery surrounding the village is one that can only be described as paradise. Sitting on the pier looking West across the Gulf of Thailand, I witnessed the most stunning sunset that I have ever seen in my entire life, with the clouds turning orange as the big yellow star at the centre of our galaxy disappeared behind the far off mountains. The East side of the island featured a beautiful tropical coastline, with palm trees and perfect white sand lining the beach that was perfect for taking a swim after a hard day of moving sand for the playground. Pictures and words cannot do the scenery justice - only by visiting could one hope to experience the beauty of this oasis. In between the two sides of the island is as much jungle and rainforest as you could ever explore - I would recommend going for a walk though it if you have the time.
The experiences that we shared with the locals was just amazing. On one of the first nights, we were invited to the local head of the fishermen's house to have dinner, where he and his wife cooked up crabs and a spicy seafood salad. I have yet to eat seafood as authentic and rich tasting as I experienced in Koh Rhong. On more casual nights, we danced at the local karaoke bar with the villagers, who taught us their cultural customs for dancing. On another night, we were invited to a wedding - it was a wholly new experience for me, different from anything I'd seen before. I met some of the people who had grown up in the village and gone on to study at the university in Phnom Penh. I catch up with them from time to time on Facebook.
Also on my trip, one of the other volunteers was invited to go fishing with the locals for a day on one of their boats. She enjoyed the experience immensely. On another day, we had the privilege of speaking with the chief of police for the island, who told us the story of his youth, growing up under the rule of the Khmer Rouge. He explained how to this day, he still had trouble with basic math as a result of the stifling of education that the regime perpetrated. Also on the political front, during my trip Cambodia was having it's federal elections. We witnessed the arrival of the Cambodian People's Party to the village who were there on a campaign tour. When we got back to Phnom Penh, we saw the parade in the streets after they won the election.
All in all, my trip to Cambodia is by far one of the coolest experiences that I have ever had. I feel that I got a wonderful taste of a culture so different from my own, and met many interesting volunteers from all across the globe along the way. If you are considering doing this trip - DO IT! You will not regret it. I can't wait to see what my next volunteer experience has in store.