It was surreal.
That was the only word I could describe it. There, in the bustling streets of Phnom Penh, a lifetime away from the comforts of our home, a tinge of excitement washed over me, blended evenly with that of hope and disbelief.
Inside the market, it was desperately chaotic, yet, an atmosphere of life filled the stalls, jam packed from floor to roof. A symphony of voices perpetuating throughout the dark, vivacious spaces. Textiles and bright colours lied cascading across the crammed, almost in stark contrast to the dark, damp stalls. Outside, the streets bustling with life, the noises of a thousand sputtering motorbikes, each contributing their distinct pitches along with the everyday chatters. It was a whole different world, chaotic, yet everyone had a purpose, serving each their roles in this seemingly endless ecosystem.
They say that to understand a community’s culture, one must first fully understand 3 things. Their history, their lives, and their mindset. In such a short period of time, this simple visit to a marketplace allowed me to understand far more about the country than any textbook, wiki page, or video ever will have. Through these simple interactions, we slowly piece together the miniscule puzzle board of this fascinating country. Through meticulous details, we learn their lives: their dreams, their ambitions, their viewpoints towards life, and their internal demons.
Of course, to fully comprehend the breadth of a country’s culture, one must first learn its history, and as we entered the flowering gates of the S21 genocide museum, an atmosphere of almost eagerness filled the air. There in the pavilion, a cheery optimistic garden decorated with rusted barbed wire, the story began. Yet, almost immediately, the atmosphere changed.
As I glanced around at the faces of my peers, solemn eyes staring at the ground, I tried to understand how each one must feel. There were emotions of terror, maybe discomfort, disbelief, even anxiety. However, one underlying emotion enveloped us all. Confusion. Now, don’t get me wrong. For many, confusion is a powerful tool, as it triggers an innate instinct of curiosity. As we walk through the genocide museum and listen to the stories of such atrocities, it is imperative to ask the question: “Why?”
As one learns to ask questions, in turn, we learn to understand. In the case of S21, we have to question how such a genocide impacted the socioeconomical and traditional values of the country. What is more important than learning the history of a country, is understanding how such impacted the communities, the people, and comprehending these underlying scars. On a closer level, while our trip consisted of a major service element taking up its majority, we choose instead to spend time learning the community’s past, present, and future. While issues still remain at large in Cambodia, our goal for this trip is not to solve these short-term issues. Frankly, a group of unskilled teenagers from halfway across the world seldom solves the national issues facing the country, let alone the community. Instead, we should take this as an opportunity to learn, a memory to leave in storage, for one day, maybe a select few amongst us may change the world. And when that day comes, our world-views and experiences will shape how we change the globe, for better, or worse.