Today was a very special day. By far the most profound and moving experience I’ve had so far on this trip, and probably will have for a long time. We spent the morning visiting the first school built by Baby Tree Projects, playing volleyball with the students and being shown around the small grounds where the students have planted a vegetable field to help create food security and self sustainability.
We were visited by some of the students who were in attendance 6 years ago and are now all in high school, working towards achieving their dreams of becoming teachers, policeman and doctors. Talking to these kids made me realise just how much of an impact Koky and his organisation have had on their lives. Baby Tree Projects has given them the hope that they can be something more than they used to dream possible, and the tools they need to succeed through a proper education.
This was however, only the tip of the iceberg. For our next destination was somewhere far more confronting. A place so personal to Koky that I felt an overwhelming sense of discomfort about stepping foot through the gates at all. I have grown to respect Koky enormously in the short time I’ve known him, both as a person to look up to and be inspired by, and as a friend. But there are some places so dark that even friends feel like intruders. Thankfully, being the spirit that he is, Koky saw the importance of inviting us to this place, and encouraged us to come with him.
I can’t begin to describe the importance of this next place in a way that does it justice, so Koky has given me permission to publish the invite he gave to us last night. I’m sure it will touch you as much as it did me, and give you some idea of the horrors this country and it’s beautiful people were forced to endure only a generation ago.
First of all thank you so much for being here. This project and the spirit with which you have thrown yourself into it has been nothing short of amazing. Watching you all bond together, bond with the children and bond within the secret beach community is such a beautiful sight. I would tell you how much your individual awesomeness has impacted me but I will do that personally instead.
Today, while in the ruins of Angkor Wat temples I realised that Cambodia’s history is not a well known one. I have always assumed that everyone knew.
The next time you meet a Cambodian person who is over 30 years of age (Grandma Black, Srorn’s mum, the salt farmer, the builders, the shop lady you barter with, the street stall owner you buy noodles from and the tuk-tuk driver’s who take you to the places you need to go), take a closer look this time. Look closely into their eyes, beyond the creases and lines in their faces and you will see a soul that has lived through one of the worst genocides humanity has ever seen. You will be face to face with someone who has very likely endured and witnessed execution, torture, starvation and things that no words can describe. 1 in 4 people died during this period. between 1.5 – 3 million people wiped out. The remaining people maimed and damaged. A country destroyed. Every single Cambodian you meet today are directly impacted by this war. Whether it’s the loss of a direct family member, or the loss of a parents family member. Then, watch these people smile and laugh, observe the sense of humour they possess and watch how they live their lives. There is definitely a lesson to be found here, but it’s not for me to tell. It’s for you to find.
This brings me to Koky Temple. The place where my mother gave birth to me and we were both imprisoned for three years of our life. It’s not surprising that I value freedom with such intensity. And I value it for all. The bus ride from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap was a tough one for me. It was because in a few days I would be returning to this place. There has never been a time where I have come back here willingly.
Inviting you to this place is not something I do for anyone and not without careful thought. But I have invited all of you, and I would like to tell you why. Without you knowing, you have given me laughter, hope, inspiration and what I consider one of the most precious things you possess – your time. From my heart to yours, thank you.
Koky Temple is nothing spectacular. In fact, the original building has been blown to pieces – a new building built in it’s place. When you walk through the grounds take it in whole. Watch for the sun, feel the breeze, the koky trees and of course Koky Temple itself. Then, find the details. Bullet wounds in the trees, the leaf fronds sharp enough to cut through flesh, and the soil you stand on, once soaked in human blood. Ask yourself what stories these markers tell. Feel free to take photos and talk to each other, but a small request from me, for this brief time save your questions for me until after we have left. I have never been able to walk through grief and loss in any other way, but silence.
Lastly, I would like to acknowledge the presence of my little sister, Sophia. She is always with me, but I feel her strongly on this project. I cannot wait to finally paint her name on the school, and keep my promise.
On Tuesday morning to acknowledge her presence, I will ride to work with an extra bike with her name on it. It’s a symbolic ride to show that she rides with us everyday to make this dream a reality. I invite you to join us on this ride too.
There is something about watching someone lose their life that marks you forever. For me, it was my sister I had to watch and it was in my arms that she began her flight to the next world. Sometimes, I feel only people who that have experienced this kind of loss can fully understand how enormously their absence affects you.
Your presence and your actions here in this project, truly are changing the world for the better. I hope you realise this and embrace it.
To understand Cambodia today, we first must understand the horrors this country and it’s people were forced to live through less than 40 years ago. I must admit, I was naively unaware of the scale of the atrocities the Khmer Rouge forced upon the people of this country and am only early on in my journey of learning more. I can say though, the more I learn about it’s history, the more I grow to appreciate the Cambodian people’s resilience and love of life. They are a truly remarkable people and I look forward to hearing many more stories like Koky’s over the next two months.
I’d like to take this opportunity to again thank Koky for everything he has given me and the other volunteers over the past few weeks. I feel blessed to have a friend like him, and look forward to many more challenges and laughs whilst changing the world over the next few years.