Towards the end of the second semester of my junior year, my English teacher called me and 7 of my classmates to come to her room after school because she had some “exciting news”. As we all gathered with anticipation, it was revealed that our trip had won a trip to Cambodia through a competition sponsored by Bright Light Volunteers. At the time, although stoked for the amazing opportunity to travel abroad for service work, I had little knowledge of Cambodia, Bright Light, or what was in store for me. Little did I know, I would soon fall in love with service work, Cambodia, and the amazing people that I was to travel with.
A few months into my senior year, my classmates and I came with our parents to a presentation put on by Catherine Greenburg, the founder of BLV who would be accompanying us on our upcoming trip. I was immediately impressed that the founder of the organization herself cared enough about us and the work we would be doing to not only come on the trip, but to come meet us beforehand to get to know us and introduce us to the beautiful culture of Cambodia. As I watched the presentation, I just remember being in awe of the opportunity that I had been presented with and being so impatient for the trip to come sooner. Looking at pictures of Angkor Wat, hearing about all the amazing work we would be doing, and getting to know Catherine that first day made me even more eager for the adventure that awaited me.
When November finally came around, it was a whirl of packing, getting shots, getting homework done, and trying to contain my excitement. The many memories I made on the trip began before we even got to Cambodia; I started to get to know my now best friend, watched one of my close friend revert to a 5 year old riding on the Bart, tried dragon fruit for the first time, and watched Guardians of the Galaxy on the plane more times than I’m willing to admit. But these fun little memories were just the beginning of the life-changing ones I was soon to experience.
Our time in Cambodia was jam-packed; frankly, there was hardly a moment when we weren’t doing something amazing. As cheesy as this might sound, it is no exaggeration. Within hours of being in Cambodia, I had already met our wonderful guide Dine, learned some words in Khmer, done a traditional dance, eaten a cricket, ridden in a tuk-tuk, visited a traditional marketplace, and read about Cambodian history and culture at a Buddhist temple. Did I mention this was only part of our first day?
I won’t go into detail about all of the crazy, unforgettable experiences I had simply because this is supposed to be a short testimonial and not a full-length book, but there are a few memories that really impacted me that I just have to share. One of my favorite memories was the first night that we visited and taught at a local school. There were people of all ages in the class that I helped teach, but what stood out about all of them was how eager they were to learn. It was so different from what I was used to seeing in a school setting; these people actually cared about what they were learning and wanted so badly to understand what they were being taught. It was so cool to get to talk to them and see how, despite the differences in our cultures and native languages, I could still relate with them, joke with them, and actually be able to help them in some way. Despite our differences, I felt so blessed to be able to interact with all of the students, and their hunger for knowledge truly inspired me to appreciate how accessible school has always been for me and to be grateful for all the opportunities that I have, realizing that not everyone is so lucky.
Another one of my favorite memories was one day that we spent cleaning up litter and making renovations to a local temple. While manual labor may not sound like a lot of fun, it was incredible because it wasn’t just us cleaning up trash; it was us working together with kids from the school, monks, and villagers to make their world a better place. The coolest part was that the local people seemed excited to be helping us. It really felt like we weren’t simply cleaning up temporarily, but that we were creating something that would be sustainable: a sense of community and taking pride in their home and each other. Seeing the smiles on their faces and the pride that they took in making their community clean and beautiful again was a feeling like no other.
In addition to the service projects that we did, we also got to participate in several incredible cultural experiences. Some of my favorites were visiting Angkor-Wat, going out on Lake Tonle Sap, and seeing the Cambodian Circus perform. Angkor-Wat was simply awe-inspiring. I’ve never seen a place filled with so much beauty and history and our trek through the jungle in the rain to go to the temple is something I will never forget.
On our final day in Cambodia, we took a tour through the countryside near Siem Riep on ATVs. Despite the sweltering humidity, the view was beautiful and my favorite part was getting to know my guide, Banana (yes that was really his name). It was really special for me because I really felt like I was able to just talk to him even though neither of us spoke the other’s language very well. He taught me more Khmer, I taught him English words and phrases, and he told me about his family, how he got his job as a guide, and how he wanted to be an English teacher in the future. It still astounds me how although we couldn’t have been more different, we were able to connect and bond in such a short amount of time.
Overall, my trip to Cambodia with Bright Light was the greatest week of my life so far. My perspective on the world was changed, I met some of my closest friends, I saw more of the world, I grew personally and spiritually, and made memories that will last me a lifetime.