Koh P’Dao Island

Bittersweet goodbyes as we leave our families and the Island where which we called home for the last 5 days! Even though we are filled with excitement for the next part of our adventure with Pepy tours, we are nostalgic to leave a place and people that we formed a deep connection with… laurenphotoUpon arrival to the Island we were given the warmest of welcomes from our new families, and along with that we all received a bike to use as our main mode of transport across the Island. Even though our families in Melbourne are thousands of miles away, we now had someone to call Mae (mom) Pok (dad), bongba- on broh (brother) , bongba- oun srey (sister), Ta (grandpa), yeay (grandma). Amongst other things we learned this week, this homestay program allowed us to realise that no matter how big a language barrier may be, human connections can be formed without the use of words.There really is an international language.homestayblog5We also came to the conclusion that bucket showers are the most exciting way to shower! Every morning we continued with our Khmer Language classes (Peasa Khmer) and ’the way of the day’, where we are able to hear the beautiful teachings of Buddha and practice clearing our minds through meditation (thank you to our mentor and ex-monk Yut!). Our days were filled with witnessing firsthand the work of Cambodian Rural Development Team (CRDT), going on bike rides, interacting with our brothers and sisters, and among other things, learning to cope with minimal electricity. homestay blogAt first we seemed to be coping just fine, until S stumbled down the stairs in the dark and gave herself and the whole family a fright (minus the cuts, bruises and embarrassment she’s alive and breathing)! For the second time in Cambodia we were receiving a blessing from a Monk, but this time it was in form of a baptism, where we sit down on stairs wearing sarongs whilst the Monk pours buckets of perfumed water and flowers down on us while reciting prayers in khmer. Not only was this day refreshing and a blessing in itself, it also ended with copious amounts of laughter as most of our days do. The day started with our usual language and Buddhist teachings, and then we all went back to our homes, cooked with our families and got ready for the blessing. Luckily we were given traditional clothing to wear to the ceremony. Unluckily, Cambodian sizes are tiny and our hips don’t lie. Of course it was S once again that got herself in a bit of trouble when she went to put the skirt on and it didn’t quite agree with her hips and before she knew it she had torn the most beautiful piece of clothing. Luckily for S, the family just laughed at this little incident and reached for a slightly larger skirt for her to put on. Still finding the outfit to be a super-tight fit, S continued the day trying not to breath too much, just so nothing pops open. All in all it was another memorable day filled with blessings, love, exploration, intrigue, and of course, laughter. H found endless laughter with her Ohm (respectful term for an elder), whom she refers to as the Happiest Man on the Island, because he’s only ever got the biggest smile across his face. K was overly excited at the thought of finally having a baby brother, and even though his cries kept her up at night it didn’t decrease the joy he brought her. S was beyond grateful when she found out she had a sister away from home, and formed an immediate connection with the beautiful Siah. We were all grateful for the opportunity to interview H’s grandpa (Om) who’s life was far from simple. His story took our breath away, and is something we will never forget. Just when the heat seemed to get unbearable our heroic tour guides, Claire and Yut, took us on a 10 minute boat ride to another island known as the “virgin island”. It got its name because during rain season it gets completely flooded and disappears, reappearing again with the sun in the dry season. White sand and clear water… we had found our oasis! The only downside was the strong current, which meant that H and K had to watch out for S because the current seemed to have the strongest force on her,  and with her fitness levels she’d drift off never to be found again.

From this experience we were able to explore the theme of education throughout Cambodia, learning just how difficult it can be to access an adequate school in rural areas. With the knowledge of just how important education is in life, the three of us found passion brewing inside us to explore and learn even more about education in Cambodia.

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Even after a meeting with the managing director of CRDT, none of us were completely sure what to expect of the organisation, the people, or the Island itself. From our heartfelt goodbyes, it is transparently clear that each and everyone of us had left a piece of ourselves on the Island. You can spend years studying a certain culture and the livelihood of its people. but we learned more than we ever could about the Island simply by observing the locals, and interacting in anyway we could. homestayblog6We would like to send a BIG thank you to CRDT for giving us this chance to experience this incredible village. CRDT do such excellent work and aim to achieve “a Cambodia free from poverty and environmental degradation”. Their mission is “to improve food security, incomes, and living standards of subsistence rural communities while supporting environmental conservation throughout Cambodia”. We will always remember the works of CRDT, but most of all we will remember the ever so loving families that made our stay at Koh P’dao Island special and unforgettable. This is for you. Awkun tom-tom!
Sending the world our love,
S, H, K.   homestay blog3
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Conservation & Ecotourism

We have finally escaped the 40-degree heat of Phnom Penh and have found ourselves travelling 8 slow and steady hours by bus (our bus-driver needs L plates) to the rural north-east province of Mondulkiri. Mondulkiri is the Cambodian word for Mountains; however the closest thing we have seen to a mountain is a gigantic termite mound. We settled into our new hostel, but unfortunately the plumbing here wasn’t quite set up to handle copious amounts of toilet paper… among other things. We were delighted to hear the contagious laughter of S running from her room screaming; “it wouldn’t flush” with the toilet ladle in her hand. Lets put it this way, S’s toilet was broken and after vicious bowel movements, the best way she thought she could fix it was fetching ‘it’ out with a ladle and catapulting it away into the bushes outside.

On a more serious note, driving to Mondulkiri was an extreme eye-opener. Kilometres and kilometres of what used to be lush rainforest has turned into economic land concessions such as rubber plantations and flat, cleared spaces for farming. The beautiful rainforest had been transformed into unethical, unsustainable cash-crop plantations with the sole intention of making a quick buck. Seeing this sort of deforestation first hand is nothing like reading about it in a textbook or a newspaper. It’s devastating. It touches you deeply because it is the direction of our future. It makes your mind run a million miles an hour. Why do people feel the need to expel of such natural, sustainable beauty and livelihood? Too many times the answer is greed and monetary gain. Transnational corporations, international elites and the overall increasing demand from the international market for forestry produce are all primary contributors to such saddening scenes of forest clearance. Money, superiority and power have become much too prevalent in today’s society. People are forgetting what really matters. Elites do not care what they are destroying in the process of deforestation as long as they are producing revenue and supplying to the increasing demand. It is so easy for people to think that the forest will just grow back, but there is so much more too it than that. People, wildlife species, livelihood, history, culture and spirituality, don’t just grow back.

Through our understanding and experience we have found that the deforestation in Cambodia has sparked a continuous battle between economists and environmentalists. Particularly in the last 2-5 years law enforcement in Cambodia has become even weaker causing rapid rates of deforestation to occur purely because it has become the national trend/social norm to disregard forestry and logging laws. It is so unfortunate and makes us feel absolutely powerless to know that there are so many laws in place to protect sacred forest areas in Cambodia, but they are of little to no use because of corruption. It is such a tricky situation. We have briefly witnessed conservationists in this province strive to impose ecofriendly plans to conserve the rainforest and protect the indigenous Bunong people from expulsion and urbanisation – both extremely foreign concepts to these people, but unfortunately such protection is problematic as conservationists and the indigenous Bunong people are faced with illegal loggers, poachers and well-connected and corrupt spectators and elites. The problem of land clearance has been locally managed by reaching land boundary agreements with the government that include sufficient land for agriculture and for residential expansion, but even so we learnt that these boundaries are still ignored. Like in many developing countries corruption plays a vital role in economic and lawful practices and due to lack of law enforcement in Cambodia, the forest and the forest people are suffering.

On our first full day in Mondulkiri province we were lucky enough to visit the Wildlife Conservation Society’s community-based ecotourism project at Andong Kralong in Seima Protection Forest, Mondulkiri. The WCS have slowly set up a space for a small eco-village consisting of an ecofriendly compost toilet and tent-like ‘glamping’ dorms in order to generate ecotourism into the wildlife sanctuary. We visited the tiny eco-village and were then lead by Indigenous Bunong guides on a 2hr jungle trek through the lush jade green forest. Observing the local guides intimate connection with the forest was incredible and allowed us to truly understand the extreme importance of conservation in this area. This amazing project funded by WCS and its local NGO partners has provided training in all aspects of ecotourism for local Bunong staff. The WCS ecotourism project acknowledged the importance that the staff should speak the local Bunong language along side English translation in order to engage tourists with authenticity and anecdotal information. Currently working there are 42 staff members employed on a part-time permanent basis as guides, cooks, guesthouse managers and gibbon researchers. Although we are no experts, as development students we know that Western approaches to conservation (or any type of humanitarian assistance) can lead to dependency. Throughout our visit to WCS, Kez – a Scottish conservationist, continually emphasised to us that once the project is up and running, the overall mission is to encourage the Bunong people to effectively manage and run the ecotourism project alone. This is such an important element to sustainable development and it was soooo refreshing and exciting to see that it was implemented here on the ground in Cambodia.

Throughout this experience we have seen that ecotourism aims to show the local people the value of the wildlife within these forests and therefore eliminates any ‘quick fix’ money hungry behaviour. It assists in conservation because the locals no longer want to destroy the native flora and fauna species for monetary gain. As the locals see interest as well as revenue through tourism, they are more motivated to preserve this natural space. As a result the Bunong community has become a partner in nature conservation and has begun effectively protecting a variety of endangered species that otherwise would not exist. Village economic development has also been a positive result from this ecotourism project. As tourists pass through the revenue has also provided funding for community development projects in the local village such as: agricultural support, road improvements and the construction of new wells allowing the local people alongside the forest to slowly start creeping out of poverty. An important theme we have already taken away from today is the people-forest relationship and the importance of collaboration and cooperation in preserving both.

The second half of our day was extra, EXTRA special. We got to visit and encounter Sambo, the newest member to The Elephant Valley family. Sambo, the beautiful 54-year-old Asian Elephant was rescued from Phnom Penh about 7 months ago and is currently in her first stage of rehabilitation. Sambo was one of few elephants to survive the civil wIMG_9114ar and was trained to work and be ridden by tourists in Phnom Penh. Throughout her time in Phnom Penh Sambo was fed copious amounts of non-elephant friendly food causing serious health impacts. Arriving to the Elephant Valley Project was a big feat for Sambo. She arrived with digestion illness and infected, ground down feet. Luckily for her she now lives happily and healthily in the heart of Elephant Valley and is granted with the greatest gift of all – to live again. We were so mesmerised by this big, beautiful creature. There is just something about being in the presence of an elephant that leaves you feeling so content. Elephants have such a unique and infectious energy.

Acknowledging this energy, it was absolutely clear to us that Jack Highwood, founder of the Elephant Livelihood Initiative Environment (E.L.I.E) has put his heart and soul into these amazing animals and their surrounding community. By creating a safe space for elephants to live freely in the wild, the Elephant Valley ecotourism project in Sen Monorom provides an alternative approach to elephant care. The overall goal of E.L.I.E is to improve the health and welfare of captive elephants as well as working with the Bunong people to solve the problems of elephant endangerment. Through various options for tourists to either: volunteer, participate in day visits, overnight stays and/or elephant immersion programs, we were very impressed to witness that E.L.I.E produces enough money to pay for all the costs involved in looking after the elephants including elephant vet fees, staff salary, rent and administration. Additionally the funds also contribute to the healthcare coverage of 1000 + residents of Putrom Village, forestry protection, employment programs for the Bunong people and support for the children of the community to go to school. For an organisation that we assumed to have a sole interest in protecting endangered elephants alone (already amazing in our eyes) the E.L.I.E and the Elephant Valley Project proved to holistically value the importance of the spiritual and practical connection between the elephants, the Bunong people and the forest.

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After such an informative day we regained our faith in humanity and came away with such an optimistic outlook for future conservation and ecotourism development programs. Today in particular, it became clear to us that with passion, cooperation, hard work and persistence, it is possible to achieve great things.

With all our love,

S, H and K.

xxx

The Khmer Rouge

In order to understand a country, and its current situation, you must first understand its history. This is particularly true in Cambodia’s case. But as a foreigner in this beautiful country, it is hard to understand and explain it when you cannot even begin to comprehend the struggles this country and its incredibly resilient people have seen comparatively recently.

Today was surreal. We are still trying to come to terms with and comprehend everything we have seen and experienced. So bear with us while we try and explain a concept and period in Cambodia’s history, that to us, seems to have no explanation; a period of time fuelled by nothing other than hate. A period that saw Khmer people torture, abuse, enslave and slaughter their own kind: The period of the Khmer Rouge.

The Khmer Rouge was an extremist Communist party lead by a well-educated Khmer man named Pol Pot. In 1975 Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge over threw the Lon Nol Government and captured the capital City of Phnom Penh. The Khmer Rouge gained the trust of the Cambodian people by saying the party was a representative of the much beloved King, who at the time had fled to China. Having taken advantage of the suffering a lot of Cambodian people had already experienced, and a widespread lack of education, Pol Pot was able to rise to power in a way that gained him and the Khmer Rouge considerable support. This is when his oppressive regime upheld Pol Pot’s idealistic dream of an agrarian self -sufficient society in which there were no educated people, and everyone was deemed equal underneath his administration. And thus, his reign of terror, slaughter, torture and oppression began. The Khmer Rouge began arresting, torturing, and killing anyone within society who was deemed educated: Doctors, lawyers, journalists, teachers, bilingual citizens and even anyone who could read and write, were rounded up and killed in the most brutal of ways. Anyone deemed to be a sympathiser or believed to be working with the enemy were forced to face the same fate, even people within the Khmer Rouge. The rest, were forced to work in fields and on farms under horrific conditions and under the very real threat of torture and death. Today was the day our eyes were opened to this horror. Today we visited the S-21 Prison Camp and The Choeung Ek Killing Fields.

IMG_5980While we were aware of the Khmer Rouge and Cambodia’s heartbreaking history, it’s hard to prepare for what we saw today. The S-21 prison camp is in essence, the most ironic metaphor for everything the Khmer Rouge stood for. An old high school, a place of learning, education and childhood innocence stripped of its youthful naivety and turned into the most horrific of torture chambers and prison camps. The rows of rooms that once were safe places for children to grow learn and play, continue to stand spattered with the blood of innocent Khmer people whose lives were stolen from them in the most brutal of fashions. As an outsider going in, it’s hard to feel like you have a right to stand in a placIMG_5963e where so many people were tortured, violated, stripped of their humanity and murdered. Even in the 40-degree heat it is impossible to walk around S-21 without goose bumps covering your body. Room after room filled with evidence of horror and brutality held behind these very walls. The dark, soulless wooden cells no bigger than a single mattress in length and width, equipped with metal shackles do nothing but send shivers down your spine. To walk through a room lined with the skulls and photographs of its victims, while consciously avoiding stepping on the spatters of blood that still remain on the floor, gives you a feeling that’s hard to comprehend let alone put into words. Given the way we felt walking around and experiencing what remains of the horrors of the S-21 Prison camp, it’s almost impossible to understand how this constant reminder of its horrific history affects and shapes the lives of Cambodian people living with the memories and scars of the Khmer Rouge every single day. It’s hard not to look at its people in a completely different light and it’s impossible not to respect and feel such a deep level of sympathy and admiration for them at the same time.

Despite already having been shaken to the core, there was still more to come. The Choeung Ek Killing Fields is still not something that we can believe is real. Every step you take in these eerily peaceful fields is a conscious one; doing your utmost not to stand and walk on what remains of its victims bone fragments and teeth. How could an environment so beautiful have held and housed such horror? As you stand by the sites of the mass graves you cannot help but wonder about the souls and innocent lives these fields have claimed. Who were they? How and why did they end up here? What was it about them that made them deserve this fate? But most importantly, are they at peace now?

There is little you can say as you stand in front of a beautiful old tree now named ‘the Killing Tree’. A tree used by Khmer Rouge soldiers to kill innocent beautiful babies and small children. How could any human being justify grabbing a baby by its legs and swinging and beating it against a tree until there is no life left in the child? What gives a person the right to control, manipulate and end someone’s life let alone in such a incomprehensively brutal and demonic way? These are all questions that flow through The Killing Treeyour head alongside the rush and whirlwind of emotions that overcome you at these places. It makes you question every fragment of humanity and leaves you numb to the idea that love, peace and compassion can exist in a world where this has happened.

Although endless thoughts and emotions surge through your body after seeing an experiencing these sights of pure evil, the most incomprehensible thing in our heads is how people can actually do this to each other? How has the human race not learnt from these atrocities and come together as a global population to uplift and empower each other? How is this kind of destruction and hate still occurring in the world? Undoubtedly, these kind of horrific tragedies come down to nothing more than perspectives and perceptions. We believe wholeheartedly that Pol Pot felt with every inch of his heart and soul that what he was doing was right. How could he cause such destruction if he didn’t? This leaves us thinking that the conflicts that exist in today’s society come down to the very same principles. How could Hitler persecute and murder Jews if he didn’t believe what he was doing was right? How could the United States drop nuclear bombs on Japan without feeling they were doing something in the best interests of humanity? How can these kind of conflicts and abuses of our own kind still go on without people bothering to consider or try to understand each other’s perspectives? With this mentality it’s hard to understand how and why such atrocities have occurred and still occur in our world. But despite seeing and experiencing such evil, we choose to remain optimists. If this much power, strength, effort and level of co-operation can be used for evil why can’t it be used for good? We choose to believe in the good in humanity and the ability for that to overcome evil. We choose to believe in the power of understanding and respecting one another and showing a little compassion. It’s hard not to when you see a society continuing to rebuild and be so positive despite having a quarter of its population brutally murdered or wiped out from malnutrition, disease and overwork. You can’t not be humbled when you know the entire population over 35 years of age in this country have been directly touched and affected by the Khmer Rouge, but remain grateful for every progression their society sees. While there is so much evil in this world, we will strive to always remain optimists. We just hope the rest of the world is eventually able to see the good in everyone else and fight for each other instead of against each other.

Love always

S, H and K

Chom Reap Soua from Cambodia!

We have made it! It’s hard to believe that just 12 short hours ago we were complaining about how cold and miserable Melbourne was. Now, were what seems like a million miles away, and there is sweat. A LOT of sweat!

Our excitement has reached optimum level. Not even 12 hours of travel and a delightfully sticky 40 degrees can stop us! We get out of the airport and are greeted by the bright smiling faces of our Team leaders Yut and Claire from Pepy Tours. After brief but energetic introductions, we are off, ready for our first glimpse of Phnom Penh! Luckily for the 3 of us, this was in the form of our first delicious traditional Khmer Dinner. We weren’t able to hide our love and excitement for food for very long. Needless to say our first dinner spiked our enthusiasm even more.

We’re not the 3 most graceful or lady like girls at the best of times but unfortunately for those around us, the heat has personified this to a whole new level. Not only are we sweaty, we are starting to realise there’s not much we can do to stop it. But still our excitement lives on. Despite the sweat, we realise we are so incredibly blessed to be given this opportunity but, we are even more grateful that we get to experience it all with such free spirited, intelligent, caring and like-minded people. Through our first full day of team bonding it’s clear just how passionate and driven we all are to grow and learn as individuals and as a group. It’s funny, a lot of times when people think about development and aid, people presume it is us that is going to be teaching those less fortunate than us, but in reality it really is the other way round. People in the developing world have so much to teach us and we havIMG_5948e so much to learn from them. With this mentality, the 11 of us have aimed to ‘face and understand the realities and accept the challenges of an open and present experience with the goal of growth’. With a little inspiration from our resident Monk and Buddhist teacher Yut, we have committed ourselves to embark on a journey that is going to challenge and develop us mentally, spiritually, emotionally, interpersonally, linguistically and culturally and therefore push us to question all that we believe we know and the ways in which we see the world, and our place in that world. Be prepared, we are probably coming back to Melbourne as (not so little) Buddha’s! In such a short time we have been forced to learn so much about ourselves, and question and understand our realities and the realities of those around us. It so cliché and cheesy to say but the safe space of sharing, learning and growing has created a supportive and encouraging family away from home! How blessed are we!

P.s Sorry for the cheesey-ness ! But Hey we like cheesey-ness so get ready for plenty more !

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Love S, H and K!

Pepy Tours Immersion Program

Instead of attending lectures, tutorials and trying to write essays, this next month the students of International Development at the Australian Catholic University will be spread out throughout South East Asia participating in an Immersion Program. Not knowing what to expect from this course or where it will take us upon completion, we ended up finding complete passion and intrigue in everything that we have learned. We have not only stumbled upon a course that interests us, we have found something that pushes us to ask even more questions and open up our minds in the process. This course can be confronting at times, complex, and even painful, but we speak honest when we say that neither of us would want to be studying anything else. As apart of studying BIDS at ACU we are given the opportunity to spend 1 month in Cambodia with the hopes of learning and becoming apart of the culture, as well as witnessing first hand the work of NGO’s. For the next month, we will be immersing ourselves into the Cambodian culture and partaking in small internships in order to put our study into practice. We can not express just how excited we are for this, and with the nerves settling we have everything and more to look forward to! Thank you to Australian Catholic University and Pepy Tours for making this Immersion Program possible!

and… SEE YOU SOON CAMBODIA,

H, K & S

Our story

So, us… who are we and what are we about?
We’ll basically, we are three 20 something girls, brought together by a passion and love for experiencing all that this incredibly amazing and beautifully confronting world has to offer, while doing our best to give back to it, as much as we possibly can. This world and all of its wonderful paradoxes have carried the three of us from different corners of the globe, into each other’s lives and has thrust us into the world of International Development. image
You’ll get to know us as ‘S’, ‘H’ and ‘K’, but let us give you a brief little introduction.
Meet ‘S’; better known as Sara! Our Sar bear. She’s the beer loving, earth appreciating, fun loving and incredibly passionate survivor. Originally from Bosnia, our Sara and her beautiful family escaped the unimaginable tragedies of the Bosnian Civil War. With the help of the UN Sara and her family were moved to Canada where she developed her delightfully cute accent that we all love to make fun of. She is a strong, passionate and incredibly positive gal who wants to give back to a world that she believes has given so much to her.
Now ‘H’- this one’s a complete goofball but that’s why we love her! Our Hayley; if you want to understand Hay and the way she is think of a beautiful bright yellow Sunflower. Think of the way they brighten your day as soon as you see them; they are simple yet uniquely beautiful. If you’ve got that image, you’ve got Hayley! She is the positive, compassionate and incredibly dorky hippy that just lights up our lives. Hayley has grown up in the Eastern Suburbs of Melbourne but has always had a passion to explore the big wide world around her. This little adventurer has taken on Africa, Borneo, Indonesia and is now taking on South East Asia. Compassion and caring is in Hayley’s blood so naturally, she was drawn to a career in International Development.
Now, the final 3rd to our trio; ‘K’. Meet Kaitlin, or as we like to call her Kaiti180. She’s our little blonde Asian. As an ‘expat’ child, Kaitlin was set up for a life-long love of travel and adventure when her parents work took her to all corners of the globe, mainly Asia. She was born in Hong Kong and has lived in Malaysia and South Korea. While she calls Melbourne home, she has left her pieces of her heart in countries all around the world. At her (relatively) young age, she has been lucky enough to experience a lot of all this wonderful world has to offer, but refuses to stop exploring, learning and growing. She is our wide eyed optimist who aims to give back to the world, as much as it has given to her.

So how do we all fit together? Strangely enough, all of our delightfully quirky traits fit together to make, what we believe is the ultimate trio. We were lucky enough to be brought together to help each other get through the high’s, low’s and in our case massive struggles of University life. We aim to spend the rest of our lives living out our passion and hopefully making the world a better place for those less fortunate than us. Through our blog we hope to share as much of this journey with those of you that want to listen and experience it all with us.
So from S H and K………. WELCOME TO OUR J O U R N E Y

 

We are three travel loving, International Development Studying, Immersion trip- doing ladies who are about to embark on a journey that will takes us through Southeast Asia. Bring on A D V E N T U R E!

Love,

S, H, K.