Imagine landing in Phnom Penh in the dead of night, circled by mosquitos, jetlagged. You don’t know anyone. Then you see your name on a piece of card and two smiling souls waving frantically, excited to ferry you onward. You’re driven through Cambodia at night, past the stalls selling old Coca-Cola, endless dust roads ahead and behind. Down onto a bumpy track. Right onto an even narrower one. Left, and you’re now off the road.
Just as you start to feel a little uneasy, you are greeted by the colourful and welcoming mural on Hope’s walls. You wonder if you are the only volunteer, but inside the gates, you hear laughter from one of the classrooms. Thirteen other teachers, here with the same adventure in mind, introduce themselves and welcome you as a member of the family.
They immediately start including you into the weekend trip away to Angkor Wat while handing you a cold beer.
‘Oh, and you’re invited to a wedding tomorrow night!’ Someone adds. A wedding! You look round to see if they are really talking to you, and fall asleep tucked under a mosquito net wondering if it could get any more exciting than this.
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The next day, the children begin to arrive. Bikes, foot, tuk-tuks. They find a way to you. Even though you may have taught English before, the pressure is off and the fun is on! Everyone wants to be there, wants to use their imagination, wants to support one another. And you become a part of that. Next door, songs are being sung, in the gardens outside there are projects being dug, and students skipping in the sun.
You leave the teaching on a high, knowing the beaming faces you teach will remain a memory to treasure for eternity. And in the afternoon, you swing in the hammock, planning for tomorrow, dreaming of the trip away while the sweet scent of Cambodian cooking floats over the school.
You join a couple of others for a stroll down the lane, so different in the light. There are mesmerising buildings you couldn’t have known were there, fields of vegetations. You greet a litter of puppies, a cow, three children all sharing a bike, and make it to the village. You take out the riel in your pocket and are spoilt for choice between the coconuts, bananas, and lychees. You test out a little of your Khmer language, but the universal language of the smile is welcomed just as much.
You find a little phone signal to phone your mum, and she worries about what you will wear to the wedding! There’s very little formal wear in your rucksack. All the same, you make an effort and everyone crams into three tuk-tuks to head on out. You wonder what the venue will be like, and twenty minutes later, down a dust track with nothing around for miles, is a booming sound system and a large white tent! Surely, it can’t be in the middle of this field.
The bride and groom greet the new arrivals, you are welcomed to tables and fed until you can’t move anymore. The alcohol is flowing, and everyone is excited for a wonderful time.
Before you know it, you’re being dragged onto the dance floor! Gangnam Style is played in honour of the guests, and you’re all lifted onto the stage! The party is in full swing – you wonder how on earth you managed to end up in such a magical place living your wildest
You are truly wrapped in experience at Hope; part of a family, part of the Cambodian community, and part of a journey that will never leave you.
And the next morning, you’re packing a small bag to take a boat up the river. You’ve dreamed of Angkor Wat at sunrise for ten years, and now you’re about to discover how magnificent it truly is…