Sunday, 23 January 2011

A great Khmer outing

via CAAI
Sunday January 23, 2011

Story and photos by SHARON OVINIS

A group of youngsters, all grand prize team winners of the Mag Inc 2010 contest, were both moved by the poverty they witnessed in the streets of Siem Reap, Cambodia, and awed by its spectacular structures.

NO amount of reading or surfing the Internet prepared 12 bright, young minds for what they witnessed within hours of landing at the Siem Reap International Airport. As the students and three teachers from SJKC Chung Hua, Seremban, SMK Bukit Mewah, Seremban and Penang Chinese Girls’ High School made their way to the docks of Cambodia’s Tonle Sap Lake in the warm light of the late morning, swarms of children, some looking as young as five, furiously shoved their way around each other; no malice intended.

“You want drink, lady?” They stretched their frail limbs, hoping that the sale from the canned carbonated drinks they held in their palms would put food on the table for their families later that evening. “Wan dallar (one dollar)!” their voices echoed. Amidst the pleas, the bewildered looking students were whisked off into a motorised boat and within minutes, the excursion to the Floating Village took off with the three grand prize team winners of the Mag Inc 2010 contest.

A marked difference

Shopping for souvenirs: (from left) Yong Xian, Arlen, Wen Xiang and Natasha are taken in by all that’s on display at the Night Market.

Amanda Ng’s thoughts ran deep as she viewed the floating village that dotted the lake. The 16-year-old from the Penang Chinese Girls’ High School caught intermittent phrases as Vanni, the tour guide, strained his voice over the splutter of the boat’s engine. Everything the community needed floated here: the school, the church, the grocery stores, the petrol station and even the basketball court.

Children paddled to and fro in silver aluminium basins, very much like the ones our grandmothers used to wash and wring their laundry and bed sheets in. The scene drew giggles from the younger students; it must be so much fun! The sun-burnt children wore smiles on their faces.

The community went about their daily routine, unperturbed by us and the other boats that chugged up and down the channels with tourists. Breast-feeding mothers and limbless fathers skilfully manoeuvred around the tourist boats in their motorised sampan. Their children hopped effortlessly aboard the tourist boats, as the sampan pulled alongside. It was a race to sell more cool, canned drinks. The enterprising ones took it a step further. Some had snakes coiled around their hands and necks but their eyes said it all: “It’s photo opportunity, lady!” – all for the sum of US$1 (RM3.05).

“It was a culture shock for me although I had read up on Cambodia. We were shoved straight into the face of poverty,” said Amanda who had returned from Stockholm, Sweden just eight days earlier.

Apprenticeship training anyone? The students get a feel of the tools and wood carvings at one of the work stations at the Le Artisan Stone and Wood Carving Centre.

Amanda was one of the winning team members from her school who had participated and clinched the grand prize at the National Science Challenge organised by the Academy of Sciences.

What Amanda saw as exploitation of child labour distressed her greatly. “In Stockholm, you see the technology of tomorrow. In Siem Reap, you see the poverty levels. It’s disheartening to note what the world is coming to.”

For the younger ones like 12-year-old Natasha Yau of SJKC Chung Hua, however, the sight of “mobile” homes built on skinny stilts were a novelty.

“I thought it was fun having the water splash onto our faces during the boat ride!” she said.

Many disadvantaged groups in Cambodia earn a living by producing a range of handicrafts and souvenirs, which are of high quality and eventually find their way to markets around the country. Within Siem Reap itself, several centres such as the Le Artisan Stone and Wood Carving Centre as well as the Silk Farm were opened for tourists. Students were taken on a tour of the processes involved before the items were displayed on the shelves of air-conditioned stores.

The working conditions at the Carving Centre were a far cry from what the students had been accustomed to. The rooms that housed the workstations were dusty.

We made it!: (Clockwise) Arlen, Yong Xian, Alicia, Shan Shan and Wen Xiang take a breather after climbing the five-tiered temple mountain of Phnom Bakheng

The young visitors saw how blocks of wood were chipped away skilfully to reveal fine carvings of Buddha. The odour from the lacquer wasn’t appealing either as could be seen from the way Lee Shan Shan and Alicia Kwan, both aged 12 from SJKC Chung Hua, wrinkled their noses.

At the Silk Farm, the boiling, spinning, and weaving of silk thread from the cocoons were carried out in wooden longhouses installed with zinc rooftops.

It was hot and humid. But it was nothing less than awe and admiration that teacher Lim Siew Heoh from the Penang Chinese Girls’ School, had for the craftswomen who worked seven hours a day to weave one metre of exquisite silk.

“It’s amazing,” she said of the arduous task of moving the shuttle threaded with at least 30 multi-coloured silk threads.

Take your pick

The Psar Chaa Market and Angkor Night Market were the draw for Shan Shan and Alicia, as well as the teachers and students on the trip. After a quick “How to bargain in Cambodia 101” lesson by Vanni, everyone was geared up for great bargains via the art of haggling.

“We enjoyed the shopping and the bargaining bit with the shopkeepers,” said Shan San and Alicia. “I found their accent amusing too,” said Shan Shan.

Located in the heart of Siem Reap, the markets offered a lively shopping scene. Heng Wan Fen and Heng Yi Cheer, 16, were heard fervently discussing with their teacher Lim and schoolmate Amanda if they had exhausted the list of friends they had to buy souvenirs for.

“Could we catch more shopping action tomorrow?” was the next most popular phrase after the shopkeepers’ popular call, “Lady, you want something?” After all, there were so many items to buy: silverware, paintings, T-shirts, table mats, wood carvings. The list was endless.

What is a trip to Siem Reap without a walk through the architectural wonders of the staggering temples? For the 14 year-old students of SMK Bukit Mewah, Amelia Kwan, Alyssa Yau, Stephany Rajasingam and Lee Yong Xian, the trips to the Angkor Thom Temple, Bayon Temple, Terrace of Elephants, Terrace of the Leper King and the majestic Angkor Wat would be one of their best history lessons yet.

“I loved Angkor Wat! It’s so rich in history. It was amazing that I got a chance to climb the steep steps into the temple towers!” said Stephany. Team mate Alyssa said it was unbelievable that she was actually seeing Angkor Wat!

“I learnt a little about it from our history lesson back home. But I never thought I could be here. Being here has made the lesson more real and meaningful.”

The only “rose” among the thorns, Yong Xian was impressed by how Unicef and other countries like Japan, Korea and India were working hand-in-hand with the Cambodian Government to restore the temples. Yong Xian enjoyed climbing the steep steps of Angkor Wat and the other temples as “it proved to be a challenge considering how high and narrow they were!”

SJKC Chung Hwa team mates, Arlen Tan and Li Wen Xiang, aged 12, agreed. Both enjoyed their hike up the hill to Phnom Bakheng. “The scenery was beautiful at sunset!” said Arlen. “The climb up the stairs made the trip all the more exciting!” quipped Wen Xiang.

Teacher-in-charge, Shamala Devi, was glad that her students had the opportunity to see the spectacular monuments for themselves. “They know how blessed they are to be on a trip like this,” she said.

Amanda who professed to not being particularly spiritual in nature, was overwhelmed by the magnificence and grandeur of the past.

“It was riveting, just standing in one of the most majestic, holy sites in the world. Walking through the ruins, it was not hard to visualise the splendour of the Khmer empire so long ago. I could feel the aura and the energy within the Angkor compounds. Suryavarman II has certainly accomplished what he set out to do – to build something that still woos the whole world!”

A wake up call

For many of the students, the highlight of the trip was a stop at the Little Angels Orphange which houses about 80 children aged between four and 16.

The idea was mooted by the students of SMK Bukit Mewah who are no strangers to charitable deeds. Their winning entry at the Mag Inc contest, SHARE, advocated volunteerism.

Mission in motion, Amelia Kwan, and the entourage made a stop at the local grocery store to buy noodles, candy, dried food, bags of rice, toiletries, books and stationery items.

“I didn’t have much time to get a charity drive going in school so I opted to help my mum with the house chores to earn RM50 for this charity bit.” When asked what types of chores she pitched in, Amelia said it was the ironing. “It wasn’t too bad because I liked ironing anyway,” said the energetic 14-year-old.

“I was surprised to see that the orphanage was open-air though. In Malaysia, children live in homes. In Siem Reap, the facilities were desperately lacking. I’ve learnt to be grateful for what I have,” she continued.

Alyssa Yau summed up a poignant point: “I think if everyone contributes, no matter how little, we can bring change to this world.

“We need to better ourselves, heart and soul.”

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